Olympic sponsors are playing global politics for high stakes

The biggest broadcast event of all time is upon us. A thousand TV cameras will deliver no less than 35 billion Olympic viewer hours to 220 countries, creating an unmissable occasion for the world's biggest marketers.

Olympic sponsors are playing global politics for high stakes
Olympic sponsors are playing global politics for high stakes

Twelve brands make up the premier league of so-called TOP (The Olympic Partner) sponsors. Among them are McDonald's, Kodak, Visa, Panasonic, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, Lenovo (the only Chinese brand), Samsung (which has spent $100m (£50m) on these Olympics) and Coca-Cola, sponsor of every Games since 1928.

But while any international contest - even Eurovision - can't help its politics, these Games have been the ugliest of all time. Samsung, sponsor of the torch procession, pronounces itself delighted with an investment in unprecedented scenes of protesters hassling local sporting heroes in many of the world's major cities.

We all know that the point of sponsorship is to align a brand with desirable values - those Olympic ideals of being the best, fair play and global community. But so far, this event is most famous for the menacing behaviour of its host.

It was a bold decision to award the games to China. They used to do it at my school - make bad lads prefects in the hope that they would mend their ways. And just as the thug prefects promised reform and then used their authority to nick your sweets, the Chinese signed up for behaviours that don't come naturally to them.

Keeping Beijing serene as the world checks in apparently entails locking up miscreants without trial. Amnesty's website has been jammed in the Beijing press centre. Hotel televisions consistently drop their signal when foreign news agencies mention Tibet, only to find it again in time for the sport.

The promise of media openness, always a big ask of a regime whose normal levers of governance include painstaking media management, has been flouted.

The websites of the TOP brands celebrate their participation in a fairytale event with no such difficulties. In reality, their brands risk association not so much with Olympian ideals, as Western outrage.

Of course, it's a calculated risk. Coke's chairman last week pointed to 1.3 billion thirsty Chinese as the biggest prize of the games. For the TOP brands, China is the most important market outside the US.

So, the bet is that building their presence there yields enough gold to outweigh the - probably transient - indignation of customers in established markets.

Richard Eyre is a media pluralist, richard.eyre@haymarket.com.

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