BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 08:30 GMT, Thursday, 17 June 2010 09:30 UK

How ambush marketing ambushed sport

Netherlands fans in Bavaria miniskirts

By Jon Kelly
BBC News Magazine

A Dutch brewery's World Cup publicity stunt has led to arrests, threats of legal action and the loss of an ITV pundit's job. Why is so-called "ambush marketing" such a high-stakes business?

It was, the authorities claim, a gimmick cynically designed to capture the attention of the world's media - and, if so, it was wildly successful.

When 36 young women wearing orange mini-dresses associated with the Dutch brewers Bavaria entered the stands at South Africa's Soccer City Stadium for the Netherlands versus Denmark match, the cameras, predictably, turned towards them en masse, capturing shots that would grab the attention of picture editors worldwide.

The reaction of those in charge was swift and ruthless.

1984: Kodak sponsors TV broadcasts, despite Fuji being Los Angeles Olympics' official sponsor. Fuji returns favour at Seoul 1988 Games
1992: Nike sponsors news conferences with the US basketball team. Michael Jordan accepts the gold medal for basketball and covers up his Reebok logo
1994: American Express creates runs ads claiming Americans do not need "Visas" to travel to Norway for the Winter Olympics
2000: Qantas Airlines' slogan "Spirit of Australia" coincidentally sounds like games slogan "Share the spirit" to chagrin of official sponsor Ansett Air

All of the mini-skirted ladies were ejected from the venue and two were arrested on charges of organising "unlawful commercial activities". Meanwhile, a spokesman for the tournament's governing body Fifa said it was looking into "all available legal remedies" against the brewery.

In a surreal twist, ex-Jamaica and Wimbledon midfielder Robbie Earle was dropped as an ITV pundit and as an ambassador for England's 2018 World Cup bid after claims that the orange crowd entered the stadium using tickets intended for his family and friends.

It may sound like a bafflingly trivial incident to get worked up about.

But the World Cup's authorised beer, Budweiser, has paid millions for the privilege of exclusive representation during the competition.

Sponsorship is big business, both for the brands splashing out and sporting governing bodies cashing in - meaning that so-called "ambush marketing" has itself become a huge growth industry.

And sport fans in the UK can expect to witness even tougher anti-ambush measures as a result of strict legislation passed by Parliament ahead of the 2012 London Olympics.

Linford Christie in 1996
Linford Christie wore Puma contact lenses to the 1996 Olympics

"Events like the Olympics and the World Cup are hugely expensive to put on, so they need big-money sponsors and this in turn means that the organisers must protect aggressively against ambush marketing," says intellectual property barrister Phillip Johnson, a visiting senior fellow at Queen Mary, University of London.

"But this means there is potentially huge exposure for anyone who manages to outwit them."

Indeed, Bavaria's campaign was meticulously executed.

The mini-dresses, sold by the brewery as part of a gift pack, may only have had a tiny outer label carrying the brand's name.

But prior to the stunt, the firm made sure they were instantly recognisable in the Netherlands by arranging to have one modelled by top-ranking Dutch Wag Sylvie van der Vaart, the wife of Real Madrid's Rafael van der Vaart.

Bavaria has form in the dark arts of ambush marketing. During the 2006 World Cup in Germany, dozens of Dutch men watched the Netherlands play in a Stuttgart stadium in their underwear after stewards ordered them to remove orange lederhosen bearing Bavaria's name.

And this was only the latest in a long line of ploys executed by firms shut out of sponsorship arrangements.

There's a mini-industry on both sides
Professor Simon Chadwick

During the 2009 Six Nations campaign, adverts for Fuller's beer included a picture of a rugby post and the phrase "Support English Rugby" - prompting a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority from the Rugby Football Union, given that the brewery had not actually parted with any cash for the privilege of associating itself with the team or tournament.

One of the most notorious - or audacious, depending on your viewpoint - examples saw Nike buying up billboard space around venues in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, constructing Nike Village next door to the athletes' village and distributing flags bearing the company logo - swamping the visibility of Reebok, ostensibly the Games' official sports footwear patron.

Indeed, according to Simon Chadwick, professor of sport business strategy and marketing at Coventry University Business School, Nike has made a conscious decision to eschew event sponsorship and cast itself as the plucky underdog in contrast with the likes of Adidas.

"What you're now starting to see is all these consultancies emerging advising on how to pull off an ambush," he says.

"There's a mini-industry on both sides, with official sponsors and governing bodies not wanting to take any chances."

Indeed, the organisers of the 2012 Olympics have already taken the precaution of booking almost all the city's billboard space during the games.

Two Thousand and Twelve
Twenty Twelve

The London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006 created the London Olympic Association Right (LOAR), which gives the games' organisers the power to grant licences to authorised sponsors to use the symbols, words and logos of the event.

It also prevents any advert or merchandise with the combination of words and symbols which could create an unauthorised association with the games.


There are two lists of prohibited expressions, with marketers falling foul if they use any two words in list A, or any word in list A with one or more of the words in list B.

Companies deemed to have broken the rules could face fines of up to £20,000.

"Those hoping to bask in London's moment in the sun may be surprised at how restrictive the provisions of the Olympics Act are," says David Thorp of the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM).

A CIM paper entitled The Event That Dare Not Speak Its Name warns that the legislation could be a potential "time bomb" for businesses, with an Ipsos MORI poll suggesting that 42% of practitioners in the industry expect to undertake "some Olympics-related marketing activity".

However, a spokesman for the London Organising Committee insisted that the Games could not go ahead without sponsorship and that it had a duty to protect those brands that were shelling out.

"We will take a firm but pragmatic approach to ambush marketing at Games time and deal with any issues on a case-by-case basis," he added. "Any action will depend on the nature and intent of the ambush."

Whatever happens, it appears inevitable that plenty of organisations will be setting out to identify their brand name with the event - whether they play by the rules, or engage in rather less sporting behaviour.

Below is a selection of your comments.

As own goals go, Fifa has scored a worse one than Robert Green. The ambush ad would have had little or no coverage (maybe a 30 second camera shot at half time) if Fifa hadn't acted to ham-fistedly. Hats off to Bavaria for pulling off such a stunt, and, erm, hats on for Fifa for making such a mess of their brand control.
Jake Hadlee, Swindon

Why do companies bother? While Budweiser may get a slight benefit in having their beers foisted on any "Olympic" events - what benefit does Kodak or Fuji get? Remember that these massive advertising costs get passed back to the consumers - so you and I are paying for these Olympics, make no mistake.
Glenn, Portland, USA

Ambush marketing is not just a problem for major events. Small events suffer too and they do not have the muscle to do anything about it. It is very hard work to attract sponsors, especially for voluntary organisations and this becomes increasingly difficult when pirates are around, thus making it more difficult to run events.
Martin Nichol, Glasgow

Well done Bavaria for challenging the bigger boys - this is an inventive approach that either way has won them a lot of coverage. Their enemies would have been far better off ignoring the stunt and it would have disappeared - ejecting the women made them all the more visible.
Claire, Co Durham, UK

I think it is a very clever way to market a product or yourself. Marketers need to stay one step ahead of their competition.
Tim Palmer, Columbus, Ohio, US

Working for one of the telecoms brands and being responsible for brand visibility on the web, I know first hand how ambush marketing can be dangerous. We were caught red-handed just making reference to the World Cup 2010. My bosses were hugely angry knowing the legal implications and possible claims.

If the games could not go ahead without massive sponsorship, does this not suggest that they should in fact not go ahead? After all, the public have, by not being willing to bear the cost, effectively expressed a lack of interest.
Dr Ewan Clark, Newcastle

Having been involved with a company involved in the 2010 Winter Olympics I can attest to the rules and regulations surrounding such an event. The Olympic handbook is so thick that a sponsor even has a hard time negotiating through it. And the "sponsor police" were on full alert to ensure that stunts like Nike's were not repeated.
Hank, Toronto, Canada

Don't worry about clothes and logos, just get 1,000 fans to play the company ditty on their vuvuzela.

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific