• IOC required ad campaigns to run for six months to get waivers
  • ‘When you’re a young brand, it’s hard to think that far ahead’

When the International Olympic Committee announced changes to its famously draconian rules policing marketing related to the Games, a little women’s sportswear company in Seattle was ready to roll.

The marketing team at nine-year-old Oiselle got to work on a campaign to submit a series of posters that feature Kara Goucher, Kate Grace and Mel Lawrence to the U.S. Olympic Committee for approval. After a lot of back and forth, the USOC signed off.

Kara Goucher
Kara Goucher
Photographer: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

But by that point, Oiselle had decided it couldn’t meet the committee’s conditions, which included starting the ad campaign in March and running it continuously for at least six months. “To us, that didn’t make sense. The point and effectiveness of advertising is the timeliness,” said Jacquelyn Scofield, Oiselle’s social media director.

The Olympics don’t start until Aug. 5. But as of Wednesday, even companies that got waivers face tight restrictions: they can still feature Olympians they’ve backed, but they can’t make any reference to the Games, and definitely can’t use words including “Rio,” “gold” or “summer” in any marketing materials -- including, according to the IOC, social media. The IOC considers these terms to be its intellectual property and aggressively restricts its use to companies like Nike Inc., Visa Inc. and McDonald’s Corp., which pay hundreds of millions to use those words and images in ad campaigns.

For more news on the Olympic Games in Rio, click here.

While always a source of aggravation for companies that sponsor Olympians but don’t sponsor the Games, complaints reached critical mass in 2012, when athletes and their sponsors learned that the IOC was restricting social media posts in addition to traditional television and billboard ads. The committee agreed in February 2015 to relax its rules: companies that aren’t official sponsors would be allowed to promote their athletes under certain conditions, which included submitting any campaign for committee approval by Jan. 27.

Small companies cried foul, saying for groups of their size, the new rules are as onerous as the old ones.

“That’s just not the way a small brand operates,” said Lee Cox, global marketing director for shoemaker Hoka One One, which sponsors Peruvian runner David Torrence and Team U.S.A. triathlete Katie Zafares. “Those rules are great for big brands that have campaigns planned out years in advance. When you’re a young brand and growing really fast, it’s hard to think that far ahead.”

It’s also costly. Oiselle founder and CEO Sally Bergesen estimated that it would cost $100,000 per athlete to run a campaign “anything of the level people would notice” -- a hefty investment for a small brand unsure of which of its athletes will make the Olympic team.

Bigger companies have taken advantage, though. Under Armour Inc., General Mills Inc., and The Gatorade Co. were all approved by the United States Olympic Committee to feature their athletes and to advertise into the blackout period, as long as they don’t use designated Games-specific terms. Under Armour is currently running TV commercials featuring Michael Phelps swimming through a generic, non-Olympic pool. Gatorade has produced a cartoon biography about sprinter Usain Bolt.

“We authentically activate a number of our roster athletes - Olympians or not - every summer in our creative” efforts, said head of Gatorade consumer engagement Kenny Mitchell in an e-mail. “The Rule 40 exemption allows us to continue doing so this year.”

The USOC argues that the updated Rule 40 allows athletes to recognize their own sponsors while still protecting the official ones who pay dearly for exclusive advertising rights. But former USOC chief marketing Rick Burton said the rule could possibly be further tweaked in the future.

“This is the first iteration of Rule 40 in this format, and if the athletes or little brands complain further, theoretically wise minds will come together about how the rule needs to be modified going forward,” said Burton. “It could be as arbitrary as changing the date, or it could push the rule in a different direction.”  

Meanwhile, athletes and companies have started to get creative. Oiselle and Hoka have been using wink-and-nudge hashtags like #TheBigEvent and #RoadtoReeyo. And a handful of unknown athletes launched Rule40.com, a site that sells T-shirts and sweatshirts with slogans like “running shirt: #rule40 violation-free sportswear.”

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