Beijing 2008 is under fire over China's human rights record, but do its sponsors deserve to be vilified, asks Ed Kemp.
Steven Spielberg's withdrawal on moral grounds as artistic director for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics may have angered Chinese authorities, but the state's iron grip on national media should ensure that most of its 1.3bn inhabitants don't find out.
However, the film director's high-profile decision and the adoption of the moniker 'genocide Olympics', by actress Mia Farrow, will have left the event's global sponsors, including Coca-Cola and Samsung, wondering whether their brands will end up being associated with the Games for the wrong reasons.
This debate will come to the fore in April when 'free Tibet' protests take place in London as the Olympic Torch Relay passes through the city The campaigning groups have set themselves the target of shaming the Games and, by implication, its sponsors.
The Olympic Games and politics have always been inseparable. The event's history is littered with examples; US President Jimmy Carter called for a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and four years later the USSR along with 13 Eastern Bloc countries and Cuba, withdrew from the LA Games, to name but two.
So far, sponsors have sat tight and concentrated on the positive attributes of an association with Beijing 2008. Bob Heussner, senior vice-president and head of Games marketing at Octagon Marketing, does not believe brands should set a precedent by dropping out. 'Realistically, sponsors can have very little influence on a country's foreign policy. Especially when it is that of one of the world's biggest countries,' he says.
Earlier this month, the British Olympic Association (BOA) came under fire for asking its athletes to sign contracts prohibiting them from protesting at the Beijing Games. Amid all the controversy, a brief but aggressive media campaign in papers including The Independent called for brands to follow Spielberg's example.
'The fact that PR agencies are already hard at work (justifying brands' tie-ups) is a sign of the sensitivity that brands recognise surrounds politics,' says Tom Silk, managing director of Velocity Sports & Entertainment. 'In the short term, I would expect brands to keep well below the parapet, as there is no upside to being caught in the political crossfire. In the longer term, once the initial furore has died down, I would expect global sponsors to focus their Olympic marketing on their association with local athletes and teams, above their association with the Beijing Games, specifically.'
With the exception of Johnson & Johnson, which runs its Olympics sponsorship on a games-by-games basis, the IOC's global backers typically sign up for multiple Games, often without knowing where the events will be held. …