Ambush Marketing: Social Marketing or Simply Cheating?

One of the more interesting stories coming out of the 2010 FIFA World Cup (my favorite sporting event) is the story of a small Dutch brewing company, called (confusingly) Bavaria, who pulled a fast on on beer giant Anheuser-Busch. Basically, Bavaria recruited a group of young South African women to go to a match between The Netherlands and Denmark hiding bright orange mini dresses under their coats. At a certain point in the game, the ladies removed their coats, drawing attention to themselves simply by the fact that they were all wearing the same thing. Somehow or other, everyone who saw this was supposed to know that Bavaria was behind the stunt and buy their beer. However, FIFA and Anheuser-Busch were unhappy because of the millions paid to FIFA to secure exclusive beer promotion rights the the soccer tournament. Reuters provides a good summary of the event.

Ambush Marketing

The stunt is classic example of something called "ambush marketing." The Wall Street Journal provides a very good definition and description of ambush marketing, but basically one brand will garner recognition at an event without paying, while another brand has paid for the rights to sponsor the event. There has been a long tradition of ambush marketing taking place at major sporting events. Abram Sauer provides a good history on, saying, "As would be expected, along with increasing viewership and increasingly prohibitory sponsorship costs, ambush marketing has developed into an art form. FIFA says such tactics "lack decency and creativity." Indecent? Maybe. Uncreative? Anything but.

Highlights in ambush marketing history include:

  • 1984 Olympics: Kodak sponsors TV broadcasts of the games as well as the US track team despite Fuji being the official sponsor. Fuji returns the favor in kind during the Seoul 1988 games of which Kodak is the official sponsor.
  • At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics Nike sponsors press conferences with the US basketball team despite Reebok being the games"™ official sponsor.
  • In the greatest ambush marketing feat of all time Nike"™s man Michael Jordan, Air Sponsorship himself, accepts the gold medal for basketball and covers up the Reebok logo on his kit.
  • 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway: In response to official-sponsor Visa"™s claims that American Express is not accepted at the Olympic Village, AmEx creates an ad campaign claiming (correctly) that Americans do not need "visas" to travel to Norway. The 1994 Visa-AmEx affair was a continuation of a scrap featuring the exact same campaigns from the 1992 Winter Olympics.
  • 1998 World Cup, France: Nike again.
  • 2000 Sydney Olympics: Qantas Airlines"™ slogan "The Spirit of Australia" sounds strikingly similar to the games"™ slogan "Share the Spirit." Qantas claims it"™s just a coincidence to the sound of official-sponsor Ansett Air helplessly banging its fists on the conference room table.
  • 2002 Boston Marathon: Nike strikes again. As adidas-sponsored runners come off the course they are treated to spray-painted "˜swooshes"™ honoring the day of the race, but not the race itself.

And where does the law stand in such cases of ambush marketing? Usually somewhere out of view." Wikipedia offers an even more current list, including the stunt by our Dutch friends.

Social Marketing or Simply Cheating?

Ambush Marketing strikes me as a beast that could be very similar to some social marketing practices. After all, social marketing often:

  • Utilizes more public and and open events
  • Leverages unofficial spokespeople
  • Operates as less than official, at least at the beginning
  • Has an element of the rogue to it

Consider the flash mob, which Wikipedia notes is considered to be something that is only really organized via social media, as version of ambush marketing light. Watch this video of a flash mob organized around a T-Mobile campaign.

Isn't this really the same thing? Granted, no one else was paying for the rights to get people dancing in the Liverpool station, but that feels like the only difference to me. As companies and organizations build more unofficial brand ambassadors via personal engagement, and drive the passion those people have for the brand or the mission to new heights, and as we are all more connected via social tools and mobile devices, who is to say that a tweet-up of iPhone lovers at an Android conference is or isn't ambush marketing? Am I breaking the law by wearing my Dr. Pepper t-shirt to a restaurant that only serves Coke products? Can I wear my Adidas shoes into a Puma store?

No Answers

I don't claim to have the answers. I do think that the world should prepare for more activity of this kind and the ownership and promotion of brands and missions moves out of the control of the marketing department in into the hands of passionate people.

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