How Ambush Got Ambushed And Why It Needs A New Name

12 April 2013 | SportsPro Magazine Guest Blog | By Bill Cooper

The term ambush marketing has been used for years as a convenient placeholder to describe the act of leveraging a set of commercial rights without paying for it. As media platforms have proliferated however, ambush tactics have correspondingly become more diverse. So while it continues to be a practical catch-all term to describe this genre of marketing, over-reliance on the term risks over-simplifying our industry’s understanding of how ambush marketing might take shape and how our industry might appropriately respond. A simple first-step in addressing this risk to our industry, is identifying significant ambush trends. With this understanding in hand, appropriate and tailored mitigation measures can be undertaken rather than undue emphasis on inherently imprecise ambush prevention legislation or by-laws.

Three of these ambush tactics that spiked in frequency during the London 2012 Olympic Games include third-party rights creep, parody and contesting. Given the recent rise of these trends, one can safely assume these will present significant risk for the sponsorship industry in the foreseeable future. As a result, I think they are worth discussing even though there may be no miracle cure available for the commercial risk they represent to the value of exclusive marketing rights upon which so much of our industry relies.

Rights Creep

As was widely reported during the London Games, legitimately secured rights from third parties can have a very real impact on the commercial rights of a property. Perhaps the easiest illustrative example of this is the activation of athlete and/or national sport organization marketing rights during an Olympic window by non-sponsors of the Olympic Games. Such activity does not deserve to be defined as simply a case of exploiting rights not paid for. This is because the advertisers in question are investing into amateur sport and have paid for the rights to tell a unique story. Athlete, sport and event sponsors all have legitimately-secured stories to tell, but if the story they choose to tell ‘creeps’ into the storyline of their neighbouring rights entity it de-values the exclusivity sold to that entity’s partners.

As an example, the IOC’s Rule 40 is in place to stop individual athletes’ sponsors from ‘creeping’ into the territory of official Olympic sponsors’ marketing rights. Rule 40 limits athletes competing in the Games from participating in advertising for a short period leading up to, during and after the Games. The rise of social media has made Rule 40 easy to break and much more difficult to monitor. Examples during the London Games included a Louis Vuitton print ad featuring Michael Phelps that was leaked online during the prohibited window, as well as many athletes using Twitter and Facebook to provide recognition to their individual sponsors during the Games window. Several notable athletes staged a protest using the hashtag #WeDemandChange on Twitter to showcase their anger over the rule. Without weighing in on whether the rule in question achieves its goal and/or is appropriate in breadth, it is clear that some kind of parameters to define the rights territory of each athlete/sport/event community is essential for that community’s sustainability.

Also worthy of note were some of Nike’s 2012 marketing initiatives. After the London Games, many industry publications unofficially crowned Nike the winner of best in class ambush for the event. Their widespread endorsement deals among active Olympians coupled with the recognisability of their matching yellow shoes worn by athletes across multiple nations created an impactful campaign, while adidas had paid handsomely for the exclusive event rights. In 2016 for the Rio Games meanwhile, the roles will flip with Nike taking up the official event rights and adidas doubtlessly simultaneously maximising their team and athlete rights. Assessing the commercial impact of this style of activity on the Olympic partnership program and identifying balanced measures to manage it is an appropriate and necessary response. But branding Nike as an ambusher in the same category as companies that simply ambush without investing into the amateur sport system does a tremendous disservice to Nike and to the system that relies so heavily on the investment of both adidas and Nike to survive and thrive. Nike and adidas both invest in athletes, teams and events for the legitimate right to tell the related stories. It is our industry’s responsibility to keep these competitors in their respective lanes while not impeding their progress so that it remains a fair, sustainable and competitive race.


There is a growing propensity for ambushers to shield their marketing messaging with parody. By doing so, when a property comes out in self-defence of their hard-earned commercial rights, they have an even harder uphill battle in the court of public opinion because of the inevitable empathy for a good gag.

A prime example was Paddy Power’s egg and spoon race in London, France established as a justification to ambush the London Olympic Games while shielded with legislation-proof parody. By establishing a straw man event in London, France, Paddy Power evaded ambush-prevention legislation and were able to post outdoor advertising all around London England that promoted their association with an athletic event in ‘London’. There was much hilarity at their clever evasion of legislation established to protect the multi-million pound investments of Games sponsors. One good joke, and a startling proportion of the public were on side with a company that had invested nothing into the building of the Games or Team GB while simultaneously having a laugh at the expense of LOCOG and the ‘greedy’ sponsors who had invested millions.

Another example took place during the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games when yoga apparel manufacturer Lululemon marketed and sold a new clothing collection launched to leverage the consumer enthusiasm for the Games. The collection was called ‘Cool Sporting Event That Takes Place in British Columbia between 2009 and 2011” and came complete with hang tags, in-store marketing materials and resultant consumer chatter designed to build its popularity. When the Vancouver Games organizing committee gave public comment as to their disappointment with the firm’s chosen tact, Lululemon played their parody trump card to perfection and simply watched sales of the collection ride a wave of consumers enjoying a good laugh.

As agencies and advertisers continue to innovate in their creative ideation process, one can only assume that parody will continue to grow in popularity as a PR shield to ambush of third-party rights.


One of the many resultant impacts of the explosion of social media has been the corresponding proliferation of social media contesting. These activations are cost effective and easy to deploy. This type of ambush also presents a very real risk of non-sponsors creating compelling on-line contests designed to capitalize on consumer interest in major events without paying for the related marketing rights.

During the London Games, we saw many examples of brands holding contests through social media platforms that created an unauthorized association with the Olympic Movement here in Canada. Almost all of these contests tied into consumer interest around the performance of the Canadian Team. By inviting consumers to guess the number of medals Canada would win and/or by committing to certain discounts or promotions on the occasion that a Canadian athlete medalled, these firms were clearly leveraging the Canadian Olympic Team without having paid for the rights to do so. Major companies from industries as diverse as confectionery products, fast food chains and major mall networks right through to paint products held social media contests supported with above-the-line advertising in which consumers were invited to guess the number of medals that Canadian athletes would win at the Games for prizes and discounts including, in multiple cases, trips to London.

Because of careful use of terminology and imagery these promotions may well have been legally onside, but given their clear intent to leverage property rights they correspondingly had an adverse commercial impact on the Canadian Olympic Committee’s commercial rights.

How to Respond

These trends and many of the others that have come to the fore of ambush in recent years are extremely difficult to prevent. In fact, in many jurisdictions they may be impossible to prevent through legislation. That said, because of the commercial impact they represent, they merit attention and strategy to minimize and mitigate. Our industry would benefit from decreasing the focus on absolutely defining such activity as ambush or not. Such singular focus elicits inevitable emphasis on absolute prevention. And while absolute prevention might be convenient to imagine it is most often neither realistic nor appropriate to the standards of many jurisdictions. Instead our industry should focus on a combination of the following:

  • Enhancing our knowledge of growing ambush trends;
  • Tailoring response tactics designed to prevent or mitigate such trends that are not legislation-reliant:
  • Defending against such trends through effective leveraging of rights (best defence is a good offence);
  • Establishing promises and exclusivity commitments to sponsors that are a responsible representation of the exclusive IP territory than can be realistically delivered and defended by a property; and
  • Exploring and deploying formal (legislative, by-law, etc.) prevention tools where merited, appropriate and effective.

Because of the diverse manifestations of ambush marketing the term will be inevitably deficient in adequately defining all the various commercial risk and attack exclusive marketing, licensing and broadcast rights can come under. That is not an excuse for our industry to ignore its rise though. Instead we need to buckle down, better understand it and be more innovative and nimble in our response to it. We also need to be more collectively oriented in our approach. Especially when it impacts ‘neighbouring rights entities’ that might be directly impacted by members of our industry protecting and defending beyond the borders of what could be reasonably defined as their rightfully exclusive story. Our sponsors, licensees and broadcasters have been made a promise and it is our job to keep it lest we lose their trust. All the more reason to make promises that can be kept as opposed to promises that ‘need’ to be made to get the deal done.

Bill Cooper is the chief operating partner of the TwentyTen Group, one of Canada’s premier strategic marketing agencies.

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