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The Olympics may be mired in controversy, but for U.S. advertisers, it’s business as usual

Brands are still banking on the selling power of the five rings.

The Olympics may be mired in controversy, but for U.S. advertisers, it’s business as usual
[Illustration: FC]
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Sprinters line up to run the women’s 100-meter final. Screaming fans cheer them on amid a packed stadium. At the same time, fans squeeze into another packed arena to watch Paralympic basketball.

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That’s how Samsung’s Olympic commercial starts, but it’s far from the reality of what we can expect at the Tokyo Games. And Samsung’s not alone. In fact there are plenty of brands rolling out ads for the Olympics as if this were any other Games, despite the fact that much of the world is still fighting a pandemic. The disconnect is jarring.

On Tuesday, three days before the opening ceremony, the chief of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee didn’t rule out canceling the Games if COVID-19 cases spiked. The COVID-19 situation in the host city, and Japan overall, has been as much a focus of local and international attention as any sport.

Japan has only about a 23% vaccination rate, and over the course of the pandemic has seen more than 840,000 cases and 15,055 deaths. There’s been a surge in Tokyo with 1,979 cases recorded on Thursday alone. So far, nearly 100 Olympic participants have tested positive for COVID-19. Spectators have been significantly cut back at the Games, with most venues—particularly in Tokyo itself—banning fans completely.

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Meanwhile, major Japanese sponsors like Panasonic, Fujitsu, and NEC Corp. said their executives would be skipping the opening festivities, and Toyota confirmed it wouldn’t be running TV ads during the Olympics in the host country. In a poll by Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper, 68% of people doubted the ability of organizers of the Olympics to control coronavirus infections, and 55% were opposed to the Games going ahead. The Tokyo Games have been even further mired in scandal as a growing number of officials connected to the event have resigned or been fired over racist, sexist, and discriminatory remarks they’ve made.

In the United States, however, for many brands these Olympics are business as usual. In Proctor & Gamble’s main Olympics ad, a boxer is triumphant in front of a huge Olympics crowd. Meanwhile, Michelob Ultra and Oreo created fun-loving spots that would fit into any Summer Games. NBCUniversal, which is broadcasting the Olympics in the U.S., announced last month that it had surpassed the $1.2 billion in ad revenue earned during the 2016 Rio Games, with 140 sponsors across its networks and Peacock streaming service. The disconnect between the appetite for business as usual and the still-raging pandemic is stark and a bit jarring.

“The American campaigns have been pretty much in traditional Olympics mode, but I think that’s a big mistake,” says Ronald Goodstein, an associate professor of marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “People have another focus, which has mainly been the pandemic. Even with the Olympics so far, there’s been two major stories: How the pandemic is affecting the Games, and the athletes bowing out after testing positive.”

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Over the last year, marketers have been forced to walk a fine line between acknowledging the realities of the pandemic and, well, not bumming everybody out. For Americans, as vaccination rates increased this spring and things started to open up a bit more, brands again struggled to find the right balance. While most brands appear to have abandoned that balance for the Olympics, some have clearly hedged their bets.

Visa has been a major sponsor of the Olympic Games for three decades; this week it’s using its ad time on U.S. TV to tout a redesign and branding campaign aimed at showing people that it stands for more than just a credit card. When the Games were initially postponed last March, the brand was forced to shift gears. “We pivoted quickly to focus on the athletes,” says chief marketing officer Lynne Biggar. “We were out of the gate within a few days and told all of our Team Visa athletes, if you want to compete a year from now, we’re with you and will continue to support you.”

Biggar says that while the brand is proud of its association with the Olympics and confident in the U.S. TV audience, “This isn’t an Olympics campaign, but happens to be a great opportunity to meet our audience where they are.” She noted that its “Team Visa” Olympians include more than 100 athletes from 54 countries, representing 28 sports.

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For Dick’s Sporting Goods CMO Ed Plummer, the last 18 months of uncertainty helped shape his strategy around Olympics advertising. The brand is debuting a new commercial during the opening ceremony, but it’s not a spot that’s exclusive to the Olympics. Instead, the ad cheekily swipes at the antiquated image of the feminine ideal by juxtaposing strong, powerful, and talented female athletes with Johnny Desmond’s 1955 tune “Miss America.” Plummer says the ad wasn’t originally planned to run during the Olympics but it’s a great fit, with a message that’s unfortunately still very relevant in 2021.

“Like everything in the last year, you plan, and then you watch what is actually happening, and you adjust the plans accordingly,” Plummer says. “I personally think the Olympics are still a unifying event for the country and the world. If there’s a pivot, we’ll decide if we need to pivot, just like we have over the last 18 months.”

Goodstein says that there should be a good sense of the audience for the Olympics within the first few days of the Games. “Either way, companies need to be concerned with what they’re putting out there, in terms of the mood of this international audience.”

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Dick’s Sporting Goods may have found the right balance with the opening ceremony spot that features a few Olympic nods, but it was created to have relevance beyond the Games, with a print ad running in the September issue of Vogue. “We’ve thought about this as more broad than the Olympics, and the message isn’t an exclusively Olympic message,” Plummer says. “It’s relevant whether the Olympics take place or not.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity.

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