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#Rule40: How Olympic Sponsorship Rules Failed, And What It Means For Marketing

Michael Phelps, the most awarded Olympian of all time, has recently been the subject of some ugly headlines involving a Louis Vuitton ad, which appeared during the Games and seemed to violate International Olympic Committee’s Rule #40. And just this week, the The New York Times reported that Sanya Richard Ross, gold medalist and sprinter, has publicly "taken on rule 40," a rule that has created a worldwide controversy around the highest-profile of events, which should have left the world smiling.

Photo by Annie Leibovitz

The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC’s) Rule #40 prevented athletes from posting, blogging or tweeting about any brand, product or service that was not an official sponsor of the London Games during a set period of time leading up to, throughout and after the event. While the rule was well intended and meant to protect the costly investments of official sponsors (the right thing to do, by the way, as these brands fund the expenses of the associations/athletes), it didn’t take into account how social media actually works and therefore failed and may have even backfired.

With the exploding growth of social media and the use of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube as tools that allow athletes to communicate in real-time with their fans and vice versa, it might be time to rethink the rule, which has redirected attention from the enormous success of the Games to potential IOC violations.

1. Premise of the rule is flawed. The rule assumes that social media cannibalizes mainstream media, and therefore would be of detriment to paying sponsors. It’s actually untrue, and in fact, does the opposite. Often social media drives awareness for the actual content—in this case the Olympics itself, where the official sponsors stand to win based on the additional buzz around the Games and athletes.

2. It not only failed, it backfired. Regulating social media gets into very touchy areas of personal liberty, namely freedom of speech. This right is not something that consumers or athletes appreciate being regulated by anyone, including the IOC. The animosity the rule created towards the Olympic Committee somewhat stained the Olympics. Unfortunately, as such, the rule lessened the value of sponsorship at this year’s Games—the exact opposite of the IOC’s good intentions.

3. Adapt rather than restrict. Marketers need to adjust to the current landscape, not the other way around. It’s puzzling to me that even after we’ve watched the decline of the record industry and publishing companies, and are starting to see the same with TV, industry rule-makers don’t seem to see the need to adapt technology rather than restrict it. Shunning and regulating technology and social media haven’t worked in the past and surely will not in the future.

[Image: Flickr user Charles McCain]