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Brand police on the prowl at Olympics

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It is one of the fiercest contests at the Olympics, but it is not on any list of events. Every two years, the and the host city battle companies that want to bask in the Games’ prestige and global exposure but have not paid the small fortune required to be an official sponsor.

Ambush marketing, as it is called, has been around for decades, and no company has practiced this dark art with more verve and success than Nike. The triumphs of the sportswear giant, and other ambushers, have compelled the IOC to impose ever more stringent rules to keep corporate crashers away from the party.

No city has drafted broader and more robust rules than the of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, which, with an assist from the British Parliament, criminalized the most egregious ambush tactics and made lesser offenses punishable with fines of $30,000 or more.

Since those laws were passed, the London organizing committee has been accused of protecting its sponsors with excessive zeal. But a larger question has remained: Would the rules work? Would they pass the toughest test of all by keeping a dedicated ambusher like on the outside?

The answer, it appears, is yes.

At 7 a.m. Eastern Wednesday, Nike posted a 60-second ad on YouTube that marks the worldwide unveiling of a campaign called “Find Your Greatness.”

The ad takes an idea that would have run afoul of the rules and cheekily turns it on its head. Instead of showing Olympic athletes in action in London, England, viewers saw unknown athletes in towns and villages called London around the world.

Two men on bikes, for instance, are shown riding in London, Nigeria. Runners in London, Ontario, are seen cooling down after a marathon. There is a shot of London, Ohio, and Little London, Jamaica, and a few other Londons, accompanied by shots of a Little League pitcher, a guy doing situps and a menagerie of other unheralded warriors.

“There are no grand celebrations here, no speeches, no bright lights,” a narrator with an English accent intones. “But there are great athletes. Somehow we’ve come to believe that greatness is reserved for the chosen few, for the superstars. The truth is, greatness is for all of us.”

If there is a subtext, it translates to: “Don’t get all worked up about the Olympics, people. What really matters won’t happen in that London, with all its pomp and medals.”

If you cannot join them, in other words, diminish them. Or needle them a little.

But Nike’s campaign is likely to come as a relief to its archrival Adidas, which reportedly spent about $62 million to be an Olympic sponsor.

Which is not say that Nike will be invisible here. The company sponsors the United States Olympic Committee, which means that every athlete will wear Nike gear around the village or during medal ceremonies.

Nike also sponsors a number of American federations, including basketball, soccer, and track and field, so those athletes will compete in Nike clothing. Athletes of every country are allowed to use any brand of footwear they like. In short, expect to see plenty of swooshes when the competition begins.


©2012 The New York Times News Service

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