It began with the women in orange dresses. Bavaria Brewery, rival of official sponsor Budweiser, distributed tickets for the Denmark-Netherlands match to several young women donning plain orange dresses. FIFA charged the fans as walking advertisements, arresting two of the women for contravening the Merchandise Marks Act which prevents companies from “deriv[ing] special promotion benefit from [an] event, without the prior authority of the organizer of such event.”
FIFA’s overreaction in 2010 brought Bavaria more brand exposure than official sponsorship likely would. For years now, brands have leveraged sporting events by seeking advertising adjacencies with these events, but without directly affiliating through paid sponsorship. It’s called ambush marketing, and its purpose is to draw in major attention without the major sponsorship costs of an official partnership.
Nike has so successfully deployed ambush marketing that it continually eschews official FIFA sponsorship. Nike’s 2010 World Cup viral video ad, “Write the Future,” received over 2.8 M views in five days and up to 10 M views within the next five days. Similarly, Pepsi’s “Oh Africa” campaign went viral this World Cup, generating advertising reach as viewers voluntarily shared the video. Pepsi racked up millions of views online without the investment in official sponsorship. Surely this irritated official FIFA World Cup partners Coca-cola and Adidas. Kulula Airlines taunted FIFA with its “Not a World Cup Campaign”, for which it received a letter stating its ads cannot contain soccer balls, the national flag, the stadium, or vuvuzelas, though FIFA itself does not expressly (publicly) forbid the use of such images. Despite the costs of the legal advise it surely needed, Kulula filled 50,000 excess seats and generated 332 pieces of media coverage for the David and Goliath affront to FIFA sponsorship rules.
The point of ambush marketing is not only for brands to ride on the coattails of a sporting event without paying through the nose for sponsorship, but for brands to generate attention through the there’s no such thing as bad publicity methodology as the media controversy often brings further exposure to the campaign. Because of this, ambush marketing has become a spectacle where people attempt to guess how far companies can push the envelope, but also how official sponsors have tarnished their own image through ever-aggressive, pre-emptive policing.
Perhaps the most exciting part of ambush marketing is the unexpected reaction FIFA officials have to seemingly legal campaigns. While FIFA tries to curb this strategy, ambush marketing is getting harder to control. Companies are increasingly willing to bend the rules – and accept the minor penalties – to associate with the biggest world sporting events while increasing their ROI.
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