Olympic Sponsors: Get Out Front on Darfur?

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a story leading its Marketplace section about the pressure Olympic sponsors may face as the Darfur issue lingers, with signs of heating up. We’ve known for a while that the Beijing Olympics represented both an amazing opportunity to get a long-term foothold in China. And it also hasn’t been a secret that China’s human-rights issues posed a real landmine for companies, too.

As the story points out: 

Branding specialists say that if enough athletes and other activists
band together and put pressure on advertisers and sponsors, marketers
could begin to rethink their commitments. “If Steven Spielberg has put
this on the front burner and turned the heat up, there could be a
ripple effect for sponsors,” says Rita Rodriguez, chief executive of
Brand Union in the U.S., a branding firm owned by WPP Group PLC.

The article then continues on to say that, so far, major companies who are sponsors or aligning themselves with the Olympics in some way have no plans to change their marketing strategies.

As we talk about listening to where customers want to take our brands, engaging in two-way conversations with customers, and breaking new markets, in particular, China (all session topics at the Liquid Branding Summit this year), does this strategy make sense to you? Is it patient or foolish? What would you need to have happen to take action and change a well-orchestrated marketing plan for fear that a segment of your customers would associate you with supporting genocide? Is there value in getting out front of a controversy like this? How do you exploit it, without, you know, exploiting it?