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. The line where creative marketing meets the laws of a host country is often nebulous, with law firms such as Lewis Silkin trying to provide clarity in the space. For example, a consequence of prior successful ambush marketing campaigns is Fifa’s requirement that the laws of a World Cup host country prevent opportunistic advertising. In anticipation of the Russia hosted 2018 World Cup, the Russian Federation law introduced Article 18 and 51 granted FIFA exclusive rights to control all advertising within a 1.25 mile radius of a match day venue.
Prior World Cup ambush marketing campaigns were often so successfully deployed that they encouraged brands to eschew official FIFA sponsorship altogether. 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 in that 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.
The purpose 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 media controversy often brings further exposure to brand campaigns. Because of this, ambush marketing has become a spectacle where brands attempt to guess how far they can push the envelope, but also how official sponsors have tarnished their own image through ever-aggressive, pre-emptive policing.
While FIFA and other events and leagues try to curb this strategy, ambush marketing is getting harder to control. Companies are increasingly willing to bend the rules – and accept the penalties – to associate with the world’s biggest gatherings and sporting events while increasing their ROI.