Rule 40: Helping or Hurting Non-Olympic Sponsors’ Paid and Earned Media

Derek Herman

In the not-so-distant past, only official sponsors of the Olympics could produce campaigns and advertisements about the Games or feature athletes. Any other brands, even those who sponsored athletes but not the Olympics, were prohibited from promoting their relationship or affiliation with the athletes or the Games.

However, that all changed in February 2015 when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) switched up Rule 40: a statute that protected the exclusive rights for official sponsors to market themselves during the Olympics. The original provisions aimed to prevent ambush marketing from non-sponsors who haven’t paid millions to the IOC for sponsorships, but the updated rule allowed non-sponsors to advertise and promote in the context of the Olympics–but not without some restrictions.

Under Rule 40, non-sponsors cannot promote or advertise online, on TV or on social media using certain Olympics-related words and imagery. Some examples of words that non-official Olympic sponsors cannot use include: “Olympics, “Games”, “2016”, “Rio” and “Rio de Janeiro”, “Gold” “Silver” and “Bronze”, “Medal”, “Summer”, and the five Olympic rings and other Olympic owned trademarks

At the urging of Olympic athletes, this change was imposed so that all brands have the opportunity to increase their paid and earned media coverage and in turn, athletes can reap more monetary support from their sponsors’ commercials that abide by the regulations.

However, non-official sponsors and athletes alike need to yield caution when posting to social media. There is a list of 12 additional guidelines under Rule 40 for what brands and athletes cannot publish during the blackout period, which lasts from July 27 through August 24.

What it means for brands

With certain restrictions lifted from Rule 40, brands have been granted more opportunities to increase their media presence on the entire spectrum and across all channels, from TV to online news to social media.

But, even though more brands now have an opportunity to stake their claim in a piece of the Olympic advertising landscape, maintaining brand identity and achieving audience engagement can be difficult when there are so many things you can’t in fact say or advertise outright in the context of the Olympics. As a result, many brands have been getting creative with how they chose to advertise under the limitations dictated by Rule 40, especially now that the blackout is in effect.

The IOC itself has received backlash from the tight restrictions it has maintained for both athletes and non-sponsors. Despite the guidelines now being more relaxed, neither of these parties are able to fully capitalize on their relationship with one another. Particularly with their stringent social media limitations, many are left wondering if the IOC is hurting their own brand by actually limiting the amount of engagement they could be achieving with other brands, athletes and fans.

In today’s digital society, it might be time for the IOC to continue moving towards a more inclusive approach that would not only benefit the athletes and their sponsors who want to promote and profit from their relationships, but also strengthen the IOC’s brand by having other Olympic-affiliated brands advocating for and bolstering the Games.

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