Olympic Ads in 2016: Rule 40 Revision Brings Larger Variety of Advertisers

The International Olympic Committee has amended their Rule 40, which the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) adopted, to significantly loosen advertising regulations for non-official partners during this year’s Games. As a result, U.S-based brands have been rolling out social media Olympic ads since March’s waiver deadline imposed by the new rule.

Until now, advertising during the Game’s “blackout period”—this year between July 27 to August 24—was strictly enforced by Rule 40, which the International Olympic Committee (IOC) put in place to prevent over-commercialization and to protect the rights Official Olympic Partners pay millions for. Oh, and to prevent ambush marketing. This impacted social ad campaigns in a big way.

A Calculated Rule 40 Revision: Olympic Ads Dos and Don’ts

The relaxed Rule 40 comes after years of lobbying by athletes who rely on their sponsors to ease the financial burden brought on by years of training, and am. While the revisions are a move in the right direction, they weren’t made impulsively, and many restrictions were left in place.

Here are a few dos and don’ts to make sure you’re getting the most out of the Games when running Olympic ads on social, while staying within the IOC’s guidelines:  

Don’t: Use Olympic Intellectual Property   

The IOC remains very strict on non-official partners using Olympic Intellectual Property (IP) or blatantly mentioning anything even remotely related to the Games in their marketing and advertising.

To put this into perspective, Olympic symbols, including the rings and torch, are strictly prohibited, but it doesn’t stop there. Terms related to the Games such as “Rio,” “gold,” “summer,” and “victory,” are also off limits. To make sure these guidelines are enforced, the IOC and USOC will have hundreds of trained eyes, including lawyers, watching for any breaches. That said, no one said you couldn’t strategically use emojis like your country’s flag to connect your social messages with the Games. 

Don’t: Wait Around

Athletes and non-official partners hoping to advertise in Rio had to apply for a waiver to the IOC and USOC by January and have their campaign schedules submitted by March 27th. While the opportunity to advertise at this year’s Games has passed, brands hoping to advertise during future Games must take note of the timeframes enforced by the IOC and their respective country’s Olympic Committee.

The deadlines were put in place to give to the Olympic Committees ample time to review, though they pose significant problems for brands. For one, at the time everything is due, the Olympic Trials aren’t even underway. Therefore, there’s no way to know if the athletes in their campaigns are even going to be participating in the Games. What’s more, the campaigns have to be running for six months prior to the Games—for smaller brands, a campaign with that long of a flight duration could be unrealistic.

Do: Use Recognizable Athletes to Your Advantage

As long as you don’t use any Olympic IP or mention the Games in any way, you can still run beautiful and effective social campaigns that will leverage your athlete endorsers and connect your brand with the Games.

For example, Under Armour began running their “Rule Yourself” campaign featuring Michael Phelps in March, and plans to continue it through the Games. Other brands like GoPro and Gatorade also used recognizable Olympians like Usain Bolt and Missy Franklin, respectively, to tie their ad to the Olympics, while not breaking any rules.

That said, you don’t have to have a big budget to make this approach effective. Asics Volleyball used Instagram to send well wishes to 3-time gold medalist Kerri Walsh. While there’s no mention of the Olympics in the post, the notoriety of the athlete coupled with the timing makes it clear that the social ad’s goal was to connect Asics Volleyball to the Olympics.

Do: Think Outside the Box

Sally Bergesen, founder and CEO of Oiselle, an athletic apparel company that sponsors 15 Olympic track and field hopefuls, wasn’t willing to fork over the hundreds of millions it costs to become an Official Partner. Instead, Bergesen plans to use terms like #TheBigEvent and “city that rhymes with Neo Bee Sin Arrow,” to effectively relay her message and show support. That said, even though it seems like she’s complying with all the regulations, one of her ideas, “Big Event in the Southern Hemisphere” has already been shut down by the USOC. So, as you’re constructing your social campaigns, we recommend exercising restraint. If you think you might be close to breaking the rules, take a step back and come up with something a little safer.

The Olympic ad options available to brands aren’t confined to traditional social posts, though. In fact, Under Armour, which sponsors some 250 Olympic hopefuls, is taking its newfound opportunity to the extreme. During the Games, Under Armour plans to rent a series of outdoor gyms in Rio to set up marketing outposts and host daily workouts on the beach for fans. With effective social media promotion to get people away from the Games and to the beaches, it’s probable that Under Armour will get just as much from their marketing efforts as Official Partners will get from theirs. Under Armour also designed the uniforms for several Olympic teams, including Team USA’s gymnatics team. So, every time one of those teams compete, their distinctive logo will be on display.

An Uncertain Advertising Future for the Olympics

As of right now, there doesn’t seem to be much concern about the amended Rule 40 from Official Partners, though that may be because there’s no way to judge the impact of the revisions until the Games pan out.

In the event Rule 40 isn’t policed properly, Frank Ryan, head of IP at DLA Piper, said that Official Partners will likely use it to argue for better sponsorship deals in future. Ultimately, the concern lies with the prospect that a wider advertising field will significantly diminish the value of Official Olympic Partnerships.  

Whether Rule 40 remains in its current state or continues to loosen, brands should become more accustomed to advertising during the Games in order to get their names in front of an unprecedented global audience.

Even though it’s too late for your company to advertise during this year’s Games, it’s never too early to start thinking about the futureafter all, the 2018 Pyeongchang Games will be here before you know it. In the meantime, there are plenty of ways to get around Rule 40 with a well-executed social campaign around the “Big Event” in “Neo Bee Sin Arrow” if you’re feeling creative.

Disclaimer: GoPro, Gatorade, Asics Volleyball, Oiselle, and Under Armour are not Brand Networks clients—their campaigns were used solely as examples of successful Olympic-related ads.