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Did the 2022 Winter Olympic Games Lose Brand Value with Marketers?

Ever since its reemergence on April 6, 1896, the Olympic Games have been a popular world event for both summer and winter sports. After 1500 years without the premier world sporting events, The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was formed to organize competitive sporting events for athletes from around the world. Nearly immediately, the Olympic Games became an epic opportunity for marketers to sponsor and advertise before a massive world audience. Gold, silver and bronze have been awarded to marketers as well as the athletes for more than 100 years.

It is also true that the modern Games have produced its share of controversy and world-wide political drama. The Winter 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing, China is certainly challenging many sponsors’ and advertisers’ decisions to invest after the United States announced a diplomatic boycott over human rights atrocities in the sponsoring country. Olympic sponsorship in 2022 is creating consternation among multinational companies seeking to do business in the world’s largest consumer market, but fifteen top sponsors including U.S. multinationals like Coca-Cola, Visa, Airbnb, and Intel have stepped forward to sponsor the Games. “People see sports as a good thing. So, they want to connect their brands to the positive images of the Games,” says Weisheng Chiu, an associate professor of sports management at the Open University of Hong Kong. “Sponsoring the Olympics is almost always worth the money companies invest.”

Sponsors and advertisers are positioning marketing efforts to focus on individual athletic performances. The usual pre-event blitz of commercials, normally common in previous Olympics, were virtually non-existent this year. Players are finding themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place. “The halo is tarnished,” said Mark DiMassimo, founder of New York-based ad agency DiMassimo Goldstein. The Games’ ad agency executives and advertisers recommend that viewers should “expect ads to continue to downplay the location and ignore any hint of politics to avoid drawing attention to geopolitical conflict and the hot glare of the Chinese government. According to a 2021 Pew Research poll, 70 percent of Americans favor a strong human rights policy with respect to China. “We’re trying to steer clear of the geopolitical implications around (the Olympics),” said Chris Brandt, chief marketing officer at Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc.

The value of sponsoring or advertising in the Beijing Games is also being questioned after NBC Sports, the official broadcasting network of Olympic Games through 2032, reported that viewership of the opening ceremonies in Beijing set an all-time record low. Just 16 million viewers watched the Beijing Opening Ceremony across multiple platforms. Viewership into the first week of the Games was down 43% from the 2018 Winter Games. Spinning the bad news into positive messages is earning gold medals for many media pundits at NBC, and the experience is leading some NBC executives to look eagerly ahead to 2024, when Paris will host the Summer Games, and the 2026 Winter Games in Italy. Despite the early doom and gloom predictions, advertisers are expected to spend nearly $1 billion at the 2022 Winter Games where the average cost of a 30 second spot costs $750,000.

The high costs of sponsoring and advertising at mega sporting events like the Olympics, the NFL’s Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, and NCAA March Madness has always produced lively debate as to the return on investment (ROI) in marketing circles throughout the corporate world. Some winners of the 2022 Winter Olympic Advertising Games may still emerge, but lively debate will certainly continue in board rooms following this year’s closing ceremonies.