Sporting heaven, marketing hell

This is an article by Miriam Pelusi.
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Advertising creates dreams to sell products. It suggests lifestyle models and shapes people’s imaginations.

But how achievable are those dreams for most people? Do the models proposed reflect the reality or an aspired-to reality? Can they also make people aware of important issues?

Many people find it difficult to feel a connection with the adverts they are exposed to. Nowadays advertising is intrusive and targeted messages are everywhere in our daily life: TV clips while watching the news, press adverts alongside news stories, giant posters in our cities, banners sent directly to our mailbox. Social networking sites are used as primary marketing tools and catalysts for finding audiences by product companies.

Advertising matters, it gives insights into society and influences the public perception of the world around us. But it usually features celebrities or dreamy models, instead of ordinary people.

Ordinary life is an extraordinarily rare experience in advertising. Commercials often show an ideal world in a dreamy way, where everything seems perfect and the happy ending is a must. It is a representation of the reality: the audience can be persuaded or can perceive it as a distant world. Those mechanisms often play a role in determining the success or not of an advert.

The Olympics effect

2012 is the summer of sports; the Olympics are setting the media agenda; coverage is high and advertising is influenced by the Olympics effect as well. PR stunts from sponsors who have invested hundreds of millions in the Games have increased. So is the pervasive power of advertising bringing Olympic values into the spotlight? Have advertising agencies been positively inspired by the Olympic fever?

An overview of recent examples is useful to get an idea.

P&G – partner of the Olympic Games – claims to be the “proud sponsor of moms”. The whole P&G campaign for the Olympics is based on the maternal figure, a strategic gimmick for the company behind consumer brands such as Gillette, Pampers and Ariel.

A masterpiece commercial with a memorable plot has been commissioned by the agency Wieden+Kennedy. The Mexican film-maker Alejandro González Iñárritu has created a TV advert which depicts the perfect fairytale by using sophisticated story-telling techniques: it is emotional and moving.

Viewers feel involved and project their feelings and desires upon this fiction. The story of an Olympic champion is the story of a talented individual who reaches his or her highest standards with sacrifices. The clip features four athletes from London, Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles and Beijing.

It particularly focuses on the figure of the mother, “the hardest job in the world is the best job in the world”. Although it may be difficult to argue against this, many would ask where a father or the rest of the family is. And why has the story of a disabled athlete who becomes a Paralympian champion not been featured? Moreover the idea of featuring the life of an athlete was also used by Panasonic in a commercial for Beijing 2008.

What about disabled athletes?

Meanwhile SKY reminds us to follow its channel and support Britain during the Olympics; but why minor sports like tennis table or taekwondo are not represented in the TV advert or in giant posters in our cities? An image of a Paralympics athlete can only be found in the online banner.

Once again the reality is more varied than the advertising representation. Olympics have not made an exception in this direction.

Oscar Pistorius, the famous gold medal-winning Paralympics sprinter shines as a star in the advert by BT, the broadband partner of London 2012. But Pistorius is a Paralympian poster man, a celebrity like David Beckham or Usain Bolt. The involvement of celebrities helps gain media attention and stokes the people’s enthusiasm; from the sponsor’s viewpoint they are brand ambassadors as they introduce brands to a wider audience and create product brand recognition.

But the audience – especially young people – should also have everyday role models; not just celebrity champions. The Paralympics could represent an occasion to counterbalance the often negative publicity about disability within the mainstream by projecting a positive representation of disabled athletes. Commercial marketing boosts the media economy, which becomes even more evident in a massive sports event like the Games, but for now it does not seem to be helping to put minor sport and disabled sports people in the limelight.

An unexpected exception comes from the official airline partner of the London 2012 Games. British Airways has launched a multi-million pound sponsorship campaign which features 2012 athletes, with the tagline “They will fly”. It also includes stories of British disability swimmers Liz Johnson, Claire Cashmore and Susie Rodgers. Successful testimonials have raised the sport’s profile by providing an attractive image with a strong impact.

The normality of disability portrayed in this photo makes a small but meaningful difference to the image of disabled athletes, and the perception of disability in general.

Advertising for propaganda purposes

Advertising not only creates unreal stories for selling products: it can also be used for political purposes. On the other side of the world, Argentina has used an Olympic advert to stake its claim to the Falkland Islands (Las Malvinas).

The provocative 90-second clip created by the New York- based agency Young and Rubicam shows the hockey player Fernando Zylberg training for the London Olympics, in the style of the film Rocky, on the streets of the Falkland Islands. The final slogan makes the message clear: “To compete on English soil, we train on Argentine soil”.

In this case the advert is a provocative means to launch and amplify a clear political message. For someone this is pure propaganda. The last broadside by Cristina Kirchner’s government over the disputed islands came less than three months before the start of the London Olympics.

The clip was broadcast for the first time on the day of the 30th anniversary of Argentina’s 1982 invasion of the islands. This timing has certainly added fuel to the flames, as debates are intense. The Falklands case is a controversial matter that involves historical and political issues surrounding the Commonwealth, a big empire that has changed its boundaries over time.

Is this part of BP’s crisis management?

BP, another partner of the London 2012 Games, has produced a self-celebrating advertisement to boost its brand image, but ironically it has the opposite effect. The TV commercial created by Ogilvy & Mather shows different athletes who are training for the Olympics in different environments.

Heptathlon World Champion Jessica Ennis is running on an uncontaminated beach. This image represents a controversial choice for a company which is still trying to rebuild its reputation since the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The images of the Gulf of Mexico awash with oil are branded in the public memory.

Finally, the official advertisement for London Olympics launches its message in a dramatic way through a recognisable soundtrack – ‘Sport is at the hearth’. But, from the examples examined, can we really say that sport is at the hearth? Partners publicly promote their sponsorship to London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics Games through expensive advertising campaigns.

These investments certainly raise their brand-profile, but apparently it does not give a new perception of sport in general. Advertising agents have not brought the spotlight to Olympics values such as respect, excellence, friendship, nor the Paralympics values – courage, determination, inspiration and equality.

Sports and athletes represent more than sporting excellence, but their real image is not always at the core, especially minor sports and disabled athletes. Advertising often remains a plastic world for mass consumption, even in an Olympics and Paralympics year.


  1. I hope you had a great Summer working at 2012. It would be interesting to read your reflections now the Games and particularly the Paralympics are over. Do you think public perceptions have changed?

  2. Thanks for the comment, Richard.

    I have asked Miriam to write a follow-up now that the Olympics/Paralympic Games are over.

    In the event, neither the sponsors, nor G4S, nor the weather got in the way of a great celebration of sport.

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