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Samsung Bans Competitor Logos at Sochi: Legit or Ludicrous?

Photo credit: Tim Washer

Olympics sponsor Samsung reportedly gifted Galaxy Note 3 smartphones to Sochi athletes, but with a serious string attached, Slashgear reports: Athletes were banned from using any other mobile device during the opening ceremonies. Or, if they did use them, they were required to physically cover up any competitor logo so it wouldn’t accidentally be caught on camera during the televised ceremony.

As an official Sochi sponsor, Samsung is technically within its rights (and Olympic rules) to request the ban. But in our social-sharing, tech-savvy world, the question becomes more nuanced: Has that kind of model been disrupted?

Is that kind of ban reasonable? Or does it make a company look authoritarian and hopelessly old-school?

All athletes, coaches, and other Olympics officials have long been required to abide by what’s known as Rule 40 of the Olympic charter, as enforced by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Rule 40 forbids athletes from mentioning any non-games sponsor, writes Chris Hauk on Mactrast, an Apple news aggregator.

Samsung media lounge

Samsung media lounge

More broadly, the IOC prevents non-sponsors from hijacking any attention away from the big-name Olympic sponsors that support the Games—such as Adidas, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Samsung. In practical terms, it bans any mention of outside brands by athletes (even in social media), and it bans any non-sponsoring company from mentioning the Olympics during “blackout” periods around the Games themselves.

“Those breaking the rule can be punished via removal of accreditation and financial penalties, and can even be disqualified from participating in the games,” Hauk wrote.

It’s not just big brands that the International Olympic Committee scolds: During the 2012 games in London, butcher Dennis Spurr was asked to remove his inspired rendering—in sausage links—of the Olympic rings, or else face $30K in fines from the IOC.Olympic sausage rings

The rule also means that athletes are banned from acknowledging any brand that might’ve supported their training and prep, and it means that those non-sponsor brands can’t promote those athletes on social media or in any marketing efforts.

Two years ago, at the 2012 Games, some athletes protested the restrictions on Twitter with #wedemandchange and #rule40 hashtags. Some clever brands skirted the issue entirely by more nuanced marketing: I’ve often shared (non-sponsor) Nike’s brilliant efforts to celebrate everyday athletes in non-Olympic “Londons” worldwide:

It’s a difficult question, isn’t it?

On the one hand, the Games would not be possible without the official Olympic sponsors.

On the other hand, the athletes wouldn’t be competing without the support of sponsors who might not be officially supporting the Games.

And, in the meantime, the world—at least socially and technology-wise—is becoming democratized.

My take is this: It’s hard to control who can say what about a brand and when they are allowed to say it. That model has been disrupted—by Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Tumblr and Facebook. And the “disruptors” are all of us: the athletes, the brands, and the fans.

Policies like Samsung’s make brands seem out of touch, and neither of those things inspire consumers in our connected world. As Rob Goring says here:

What do you think? Has there got to be a better way?

“Sochi Olympic rings” header photo credit: Tim Washer

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15 Responses to Samsung Bans Competitor Logos at Sochi: Legit or Ludicrous?

  1. A great post about one of the worst aspects of the modern Olympic games. I struggle with what action to take: I consider not watching the games, but I also hate the idea of hurting the athletes who work so hard to get there.

    I wish I had the vision to send a message to the IOC and the sponsors that wakes them up to the big picture.

    • Ann Handley says:

      It’s not an black and white issue — because some sponsors support the Games, which makes them possible. While others support the athletes themselves, which makes the competition possible. And there some overlap between the two.

      In any case, I agree with you generally — that the IOC needs to rethink a few policies here.

      Thanks for chiming in, Justin!

  2. Allison says:

    Definitely not a fan of commercialization infringing on the ability of athletes to publicly acknowledge the help they’ve received along the way. The prohibitive rules turn the sentiment of the Olympics on its backside, promoting only those who have the financial backing to support the Olympics. Obviously this is a reality, however, I prefer to dwell in my Olympic fantasy land where athletes rule and their complete stories can be told — and appreciated by all the fans. Also, today’s consumers are much more developed. I’m not sure they’ll/we’ll buy into an Olympic Galaxy blackout … or whiteout.

    • Ann Handley says:

      “The prohibitive rules turn the sentiment of the Olympics on its backside, promoting only those who have the financial backing to support the Olympics.”

      That’s exactly it, Allison.

      (I like Fantasy Land, too, for the record!)

  3. Momo says:

    Samsung is paying a lot of money to support the athletes. I don’t see anything wrong with their expectation that the athletes respect that the devices people see being used at the opening ceremony are theirs. They’ve offered each athlete a phone so it’s not like their Sochi experience cannot be captured and shared as it would have been on their regular device. Is it a pain in the butt for the athletes to potentially disrupt their regular mode of communicating and sharing by having them use a device they may not be familiar with? yes – but it’s for the blackout Olympics duration only…not a lifetime.

    Definitely I would love to know about the other sponsors who support the athletes every day and I expect the athletes would love to be able to acknowledge that support when much of the world is watching. In our hyper-connected world, I would expect that there’s a way we can hear their story…just not on the world stage the big sponsors are paying to be on at the Olympics.

  4. I’d still like to live in the fantasyland of believing that the athletes are amateurs too!

    These rules do seem draconian! Social media gives us a voice and the ability to call out issues like this enough to embarrass companies like Samsung and the Olympics committee for their old school tactics. But would that result in them changing or in sponsors deciding to stop sponsoring?

  5. Sean D'Souza says:

    It’s hard to see a way around this issue in a commercial scenario.

    Samsung pours money into the event but gets a bad rap. The sponsor pours money into the athlete but gets no air time.

    The question is this: Is Samsung being ridiculous? I don’t think so. Much as I like Apple’s products, it’s right for Samsung to put in barriers, just as we put in barriers. In our own homes, we “sponsor” our kids. So we have our rules. The rules don’t have to make sense at all. It’s just our rules. We ban our kids from listening to certain music, or saying certain things around the house or showing up past a certain time. What makes 11pm better than 1am? There’s no logic. It’s our house, and our rules.

    And at this point, Samsung is the parent in the house and its their rules. Does it reflect kindly on them? Not any more than it reflects on a strict parent. But let’s turn the tables and say that Apple sponsored the event. Would they allow Samsung?

    It’s easy for us to put labels on another, until the problem is reflected on our own lives, our own situations. At that point, Samsung doesn’t look so bad, does it?

    • Ann Handley says:

      Hey Sean —

      I’m not sure that parenting analogy is particularly apt here. It’s more akin, in a parenting scenario, to assume that Samsung is asking “kids” to forsake their parents completely.

      I think the bigger issue here is about Olympic rules — Samsung might be within their rights. But just because they can, does that mean they should?

      Thanks for stopping in here — nice to see you.

  6. Sean D'Souza says:

    Having said the above, Samsung could be creative. Apple (as far as I know) doesn’t sponsor any athletes anyway. So other than restricting the athletes from showing their phones, they should get them do something creative/interesting with their Samsung phones.

    It’s a risky move, but when people are properly challenged, they do some stuff that is quite interesting. Anyway, the bad press Samsung receives is not worth it. May as well turn the Apple issue into something creative.

  7. I’m not a marketer but it seems to me that forcing people to use one’s product suggests that adoption of that product requires such forcing. Why not give people a phone and suggest really neat and cool ways for them to use the phones, regardless of any other devices they may own? The message I get from this story is that if I see an Olympic athlete using a Samsung device he/she may or may not be using it because it’s preferred but because the use is being paid for. Put another way, Samsung does not trust the value of its own products to be competitive.

  8. Ray Hartley says:

    Well, I guess I am oscillating between the fantasyland of my childhood and youth, and the reality of today in which I have worked as a marketer for a majority of my adult life. I do long for the days of the amateur Olympics, and at 62 years old I am of an age when they were thus. Yet, sponsors of major events need some assurance that they receive bang for their buck. I would think that sponsors of individual athletes are well enough informed to know that their bang for their buck comes outside of the Olympic events. Having said all of that, I am in violent agreement that the IOC has some draconian rules and regulations. They are not my favourite organising body. In summary Ann I think your observation that this is not black and white is perfectly accurate.

    • Ann Handley says:

      Thanks, Ray. It’s a bit of a complex issue, as we agree. But I do think it’s time to reconsider some of these policies, since we live in a very different world than when they were originally crafted.

  9. Pingback: Which Brands Won and Lost the Sochi Olympics on Social Media? - PRNewser

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