Over the last 12 months, we have seen some of Britain’s biggest brands positioning themselves alongside the Olympics.
In order for the status of the sponsorship to work both ways, the brands involved have explored ways to harness the timely impact of this temporal union through campaigns specifically inspired by the event, thematic slogans about teamwork and sportsmanship or just but adapting the apparently adaptable 2012 logo (some working better than others, for example not the case of UPS’s jarring pink-on-brown adaptation).
Such activity has been monitored by the ASA and there have been cases of wrist-slapping, especially for brands not officially sponsoring the Olympics, yet cashing in on the sports terminology being bandied about so frequently lately in advertising campaigns. As of November (2011), a new conviction for marketers pushing ‘marketing ambushes’ next summer during the Olympics could be as serious as resulting in a criminal conviction.
As earlier stated, the figures speak for themselves: the Olympics are welcoming sponsorship from any quarter and have tiered these partners into three categories based on their contribution: Domestic Tier One Partners, Domestic Tier Two Supporters and Domestic Tier Three Providers and Suppliers. From sportswear brands to banks and travel companies, there is a wide range of partners. There are also fast food names and confectionary companies involved, such as global giant McDonalds and (what was, until 2010) our very own Cadbury (now owned by the American confectionary, food and beverage conglomerate Kraft Foods).
What I find contentious in the partnership of these brand giants with ‘the’ paragon of sports events is their message. Over the years the damage to the United Kingdom’s health service due to obesity and further health problems in the population from bad eating habits among both children and adults has increased. Yet a Domestic Tier One Partner, such as Cadbury, who has bought themselves the highest level of partnership with the Olympics can therefore use their partnership with this global event with the most freedom. And Cadbury have been doing so. Their ‘Spots v Stripes’ campaign launched back in March (2011) with a series of adverts depicting two sides – Spots or Stripes – competing against one another in some fantastical tag team-type game – clearly aimed at children – with no apparent resolution and certainly no clear connection to any particular Cadbury product.
I remember my first question being, ‘When will I see this ‘Spots v Stripes’ bar in the shops?’ This skewed and confusing method of advertising befuddles the viewer, many of whom already have a relationship with the brand and have been impressed in recent years by other adverts which, although they have nothing to do with chocolate itself (such a level of confidence the brand now has in itself), ‘A Glass and a Half Full’ productions have successfully ridden a wave of online social media fanaticism through viral sharing of these adverts on YouTube etc.
But the ‘Spots v Stripes’ campaign is not another gorilla poetically banging a drum kit, but a demonstration of the relationship between a chocolate bar and healthy sports activity. Oh, really?
Today, at spotsvstripes.com you are greeted with a banner that says in a friendly, corporate-social-responsibility-for-the-masses tone, “We’re on a mission to get the UK playing in the lead up to London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games”. The site offers ‘players’ the chance to win tickets to the Olympic games by taking part in your own games and uploading the scores to the site. Suggested games, clearly targeted at young children include, ‘Sock Bowling’, ‘Rip Off’ (see how many pieces you can rip a used piece of A4 paper into) and ‘Longest Whistle’ (‘take a deep breath and get whistling’), among others. Now for an adult with an industry-aware take on marketing, I find this one lazy and manipulative. Cadbury have dressed up a website with all the colourful bells and whistles – pop-ups, flash and downloads – that a brand giant like themselves can afford, but a genuine encouragement towards sports activities – across all ages – is totally missing.
Noelle McElhatton, Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine constructively comments if the ‘Spots v Stripes’ campaign, “Where is the strategy? Where is the idea? Well, Cadbury thinks it is onto a winner … The question is, does it have enough talkability and playfulness to engage its audience online? With some 480 days to the opening ceremony, the jury is very much still out. Cadbury may have taken its eye off the ball, becoming more excited about the medium than the message.” Exactly, but more than that, they should be working doubly, triply as hard to promote the message of healthy sports activity… or can they? On the flipside, if an ostensibly unhealthy confectionary-producing brand is allying itself with sports, eyebrows will be raised and loyalty to the brand will be lost. So Cadbury have apparently played it safe and opted for a middle ground.
Fundamentally I feel that the Olympics Organising Committee of any country have a social responsibility – beyond that, any country’s advertising standards agency has a responsibility to protect citizens from mixed messages. Any brand that does not contribute directly to the games themselves shouldn’t be allowed to promote their partnership. McDonalds’ claim, ‘Feeding the Olympic spirit for over 40 years’ – fuelling athletes and fans alike (really?) – is nauseating enough and controversial enough, yet not actively controlled. These brands are so powerful and so wealthy, they can afford to butt out of areas in which they are indirectly contributing damage towards and should be made to.
So next summer, if you find yourself in the Olympic village with a Big Mac in one hand and a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Bar in your back pocket, you’ll know who to blame.
(Originally written as a piece of research for Hilda Smith)