G4S was, until early August of this Olympic year, hardly a household name company. Atos had been the target of disability rights campaigners but beyond the activists not many would know what they get up to. Dow Chemical would hardly register at all.
All three of course were either official sponsors or approved suppliers of London 2012. Yet the high profile they paid so much for proved to be almost entirely negative. In my book I made a plea for an uncommercial Games, the Olympic five rings to be protected as a symbol of sport, not a logo for the corporations. As an Olympics romantic I resented the Games’ historic symbolism being used to flog fast food, fizzy drinks and dodgy internet connections.
Yet I needn’t have been so bothered, instead of militant opposition the companies managed to foul up their own PR so spectacularly that the commercialisation of London 2012 ended up being anything but the smooth and irresistible process I had feared. G4S will now forever be associated with their failure to provide the security staff and having to be bailed out by the armed services. Atos’s unpopularity amongst the disabled community is now far better known than their supply of IT systems for London 2012. And the Bhopal chemical disaster, which many had probably forgotten about, was back in the news and associated with Dow Chemical.
But it gets worse. Which marketing genius came up with the deal for Visa? Discovering that Visa is the only card with which you are able to buy tickets or food at the ground does nothing to make you feel warm about the company if you have their card, and inspires unreserved hatred for Visa if you don’t own one.
The sponsors were also a focus for unremitting scrutiny if they’d snapped up free tickets as part of any deal, especially if they were guilty of causing empty seats because they didn’t take up their allocations. And hardly a day went by when the unhealthy products that most of the sponsors are responsible for were in one media spotlight or another with questions being asked why they were allowed to be associated with sport.
London 2012 was subject to the strict guidelines for branding in all Olympic venues. These are pleasingly advert-free, an example of tough legislation to prevent the commodification of sport. It meant that outside the arenas, and in the build up, the advertising frenzy went completely overboard. But once the real action began, the standout gold medal-winning performances we’ll all remember, there was not an advert or sponsor in sight. This for me is how it should be: the sponsors aren’t backing the Olympics out of any charitable intent, they are using it to make money, to sell more products. They need the Olympics every bit as much as London 2012 needed their money. And there’s plenty of competition to be a sponsor too, nothing reaches a global audience in the same way as the Olympics. So it was right to regulate their involvement and their profile to ensure they didn’t overwhelm the Games.
But (whisper it quietly) with no profile in the arenas, the bad press is likely to outweigh the good. What’s more, the unpredictability of who wins the gold medals means they are likely to be associated with a non-Olympic sponsor. Mo Farah is a Nike man, so his gold medal was of next to no use to official London 2012 sponsor, Adidas.
I could almost feel sorry for all the money the sponsors have wasted, but I won’t. They still get all the credit for backing London 2012 rather than the Games’ biggest single sponsor: you and me, the British taxpayer.
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