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Why is there a ban on advertising activity in and around the Olympic Games?

By Phillip Johnson

This summer The Olympics is coming to town. It will be a sporting spectacular — the best sportsmen and women on Earth competing for the ultimate sporting accolade. Yet the Olympics is no longer simply a festival of sport. National governments and brand owners alike have long wanted to be associated with excellence and sporting excellence in particular. The Olympic Games represents the pinnacle of that excellence and so makes it the most desirable sporting “property” in the World.

It is also the most expensive sports event to stage. The present estimate for the cost of London 2012 is £9.3 billion. Even in times of economic prosperity this is a significant sum of money, particularly as the risk of an unsuccessful Games is huge. Famously, the 1976 Olympic Games held in Montreal effectively bankrupted the city with a £1.99billion debt (in modern money); a debt which was not finally paid for until December 2006.

Yet this cost, and the risks it attracts, doesn’t weigh sufficiently to put off governments from backing bids. The Olympic Games and the perceived international prestige attached to it are simply too great. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that governments are also willing to introduce laws to protect the Olympic brand in the hope that it will generate greater sponsorship revenue and, in turn, there will be less risk for the public purse.

Olympic Park. Image courtesy of London 2012.

The Olympic brand in its simplest form has been protected for some time. The Olympic symbol was first protected in the United States in 1950 and it has been protected in the United Kingdom since 1995. Yet the protection of the symbol is no longer enough and the International Olympic Committee requires much much more from countries hosting the Games. There must be laws to prevent people making associations with the Olympic Games in innovative ways, or ambush marketing by association as it’s called. This prevents clever marketing campaigns such as American Express’ advert during the 1994 Lillehammer Games: “You don’t need a Visa to Go to Norway” when Visa was the Olympic sponsor. Yet even these laws are nothing to those facing traders in and around Olympic zones.

Since the Atlanta Games in 1996, there have been increasing concerns about so called ambush marketing by intrusion; in 1996 it was Nike adverts all around the Olympic venues which caused concern. The London Games therefore has very strict rules to preserve the clean zone around each of the event venues. So there is a ban on advertising activity in and around the Olympic venues. That is an absolute ban. It is so total that exceptions are needed for railway signs! And it applies to everyone. The regulation is so precise that the wearing of branded t-shirts or carrying of a party balloon has to be said to be permissible, and even they are only permitted as long as they are not worn or carried as part of an ambush marketing campaign. Similarly, special provision is made for moving vehicles, bicycles, or taxi cabs — allowing tradespeople to work in the area. And if a trader breaks these rules, the police can break down his or her door to remove any offending advert.

Of course, it is not just advertising which is affected. There are strict rules on trading within an event zone, rules to prevent the resale of Olympic tickets (these are on top of the normal rules making it a criminal offence to give away a football ticket to a friend), and rigorous traffic regulation.

The Olympics is coming to town and that is a great thing, but the modern Olympics is not simply a sporting spectacle. It comes with iron rules to protect the Olympic brand. The exclusive Olympic brand started in earnest in 1984 with the Los Angeles Games and it appears that the date is apt: the rules now protecting it are Orwellian.

Phillip Johnson is a barrister specialising in intellectual property law, media law, entertainment and sports law. Formerly, he was a legal adviser to the Patent Office from 2003 to 2007. He is also a Visiting Senior Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London and a Visiting Professor at the Jersey Law Institute. He is presently the Chair of the Expert Advisory Group on Trade Marks and Designs for the Intellectual Property Office and a Chair of the Brands and Custom Research Group at the Intellectual Property Institute. Ambush Marketing and Brand Protection: Law and Practice published in 2011.

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