Olympic Sponsorship Is Just No Fun

American advertisers have spent $900 million on this year’s Winter Olympics, and they don’t get to have any fun. In Olympic marketing tradition, brands are striking an earnest, solemn tone, which for them and viewers alike can feel like quite the buzz kill just days since they gleefully unleashed the best of their creative and comedic prowess during the Super Bowl.

The Olympic Games, according to Robin Bardolia, chief strategic officer of ad firm JWT North America, are just “more profound.” Less entertainment spectacle, more patriotism. So Stephen Colbert’s brand of satirical flag-waving might not be fully appreciated, nor the humor of turning his head into a pistachio, as the Wonderful brand did in its Super Bowl commercial. Ads try to evoke values that are core to “the Olympic spirit,” such as determination, equality, respect, inspiration, friendship, courage, excellence, Bardolia says. As Bloomberg Businessweek editor Josh Tyrangiel writes, “The Olympics are a televised sponsor opportunity masquerading as an athletic competition masquerading as a statement about the glory of humanity.”
For what it’s worth, the Olympics draw an older audience, too: While the Super Bowl attracts viewers with a median age of 43.7 years old, viewers of the 2010 Winter Games had a median age of 53.2, according to Horizon Media. The audience also skews female. Procter & Gamble’s spots are about moms raising national heroes. Visa has one about women soaring to new heights.

Sochi is far from the first Olympics in which sponsors have faced pressure to take a stance on an issue. The 2008 Beijing Olympics were targeted for China’s policies on Tibet and Darfur. Even the 2010 Vancouver Games drew protesters criticizing the effects of globalization.

Bardolia says brands are supporting the games, not Russia, in their ads, and he adds that companies also won’t abandon markets where they do business just because groups use the Olympics to draw attention to contentious issues.

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