Ambush marketing – Game of hide and get seen

Updated: March 5, 2012

Ambush marketing –  Game of hide and get seen

What is Ambush Marketing

Remember the 36 blond bombshells dressed in orange discreetly advertising  Dutch brewery, Bavaria at the Holland-Denmark match at the 2010 Soccer World Cup in South Africa?  Sure you do.

But you may not remember that they were ejected from Soccer City stadium for their troubles and that two of the women were arrested under South African legislation which prevents companies benefiting from an event without paying for advertising.

A bit heavy handed don’t you think?   Yes but…Sport is big business.  There are simply colossal amounts of money pumped into global sports events by commercial sponsors. In return they want exclusivity in their given sector.

The trend is for sponsors and event organisers to go to ever increasingly paranoiac levels to prevent would be and real competitors from turning up at the party and advertising their wares.  For example in 2007 a sausage factory in Weymouth, England faced the full weight of the British Olympic Association when it decided to get in on the Olympic fervor on learning that Weymouth was to be the host town for the sailing competition by creating a sign on its shop in the image of sausages in the shape of the Olympic symbol.

The concept of advertising a brand  at a sports event when that brand is not the designated, approved, exclusive sponsor to the event is known as ‘Ambush marketing’  also “parasite marketing” and “guerilla marketing”.

Big business means big clout.  The global sponsors of global games such as the Olympics and the soccer World Cup have the ears of government.  Hugh Robertson, the British Minister for Sport and the Olympics recently stated “like many other sporting events, the London Olympic and Paralympic Games could not go ahead without its sponsors so it is important that we protect their investment as well as creating a welcoming and unobtrusive atmosphere for people arriving at venues.”

Without wanting to sound like a cheerleader for ambush marketeers there are some quite brilliant examples of opportunistic marketing at both home and abroad.


In the 2003 Guinness All-Ireland Hurling semi-final between Cork and Wexford, bookmakers, Paddy Power paid Wexford goalkeeping legend, Damien Fitzhenry, Paul Codd and Seán Óg Ó hAilpín €750 each to use the hurleys on which the Paddy Power logo was emblazoned.  Under rule 12 of the GAA’s Official Guide the players could have faced a ban of 24 weeks. The technicality lay in the fact there was no specific prohibition to logos on hurleys.

Popular drinks company Corona caused quick the stir when the branding was spotted on the boots of Cork hurlers, Kieran Murphy and Niall McCarthy in the 2006 Guinness All-Ireland Hurling Championship.  Harsh words from the GAA president followed but little action.


Crisp manufacturer rather brazenly took to supporting the success of our international rugby team through its billboard campaign – Hunky Dorys “Proud Sponsors of Irish Rugby”.

Lest you forget the campaign featured billboard posters of women playing rugby whilst scantily clad in revealing clothing along with provocative slogans.  The Commercial and Marketing Director of the IRFU stated that the claim that the product of Hunky Dorys was a proud sponsor of Irish Rugby implied that the company was a significant sponsor of the game in this country. He further stated that “by doing so it had the potential to undermine the legitimate claims of the many genuine sponsors and supporters of Irish rugby whose investment has been a key element in the success of rugby at grass roots level throughout the country.”

At the last World Cup in New Zealand, England centre Manu Tuilagi was fined NZ$10,000 by Rugby World Cup Officials for wearing an Opro sponsored mouth guard during a match against Georgia. Tuilagi’s older brother Alesana Tuilagi was sanctioned for the same offence the previous week.  Tuilagi insisted that neither he nor his brother were part of any ambush marketing campaign. Nobody believed him and Martin Johnson had enough on his mind with to contend with.


Sports footwear and clothing manufacturer, Nike is one of the more celebrated exponents of ambush marketing.

Much to the chagrin of London marathon sponsors, Asics,  Nike purchased every bus stop poster site around the marathon course and ran unofficial advertisements featuring a disabled competitor at the 1997 marathon. The result of this was that the organisers of London City Marathon had to set up the angle of every camera recording the event in a manner that not one single Nike poster could be seen by the TV audience viewing the event.

At the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, Nike set up a “Nike Village” opposite the Olympic Athlete’s village, they handed out Nike merchandise to spectators entering the event and bought up most of the advertising space in the city of Atlanta. This activity was to the huge detriment of the official sponsor of the games which was Reebok.

Nike is in the process of building a 9,182 square foot store in the London Designer Outlet, which is situated close to Wembley Stadium, which is a venue that will be hosting Olympic events. Although the store is not going to open until 2013, development will have progressed enough by the time the Olympics commence to display prominent Nike signage.


The Cat and Mouse game between ambush marketers and event organisers has been upped considerably through the introduction of the London Olympic and Paralympic Games Act 2006.  Strict rules have been laid down to combat ambush marketing campaigns aimed at exploiting the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics brands. The Act differs from previous Olympic legislation by placing greater onus on individuals to prove their innocence if accused  of violating the rules on their company’s behalf. A company or individual attempting ambush marketing campaigns may face fines of stg£20,000 or even imprisonment.

The Advertising and Street Trading Regulations for London 2012, also aim to define zones of controlled advertising around Olympic Venues in order to create a ‘safe zone’ within a geographical area around the Olympic stadia so that event organisers can relax safe in the knowledge that no unofficial sponsors can spoil the corporate party.

The British Government has even gone as far as to impose a ‘no-fly’ zone over the Olympic Park from two weeks before the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games until the end of the Paralympics to prevent both the treat of terrorist attacks and ambush marketers seeking to promote their products from the sky.

EURO 2012

UEFA’s Legal Affairs division established the Rights Protection Programme (RPP) to actively prevent and protect against infringements of UEFA’s rights related to UEFA EURO 2012. This includes an extensive trademark registration programme and a global network of legal specialists to advise and cooperate with UEFA regarding any potential infringements that may arise.

UEFA have outlawed the sale of food, beverage, merchandise or other products, goods and/or services which in any manner suggests an association in any way EURO 2012 competition.


The legislation introduced by governments to entice global sporting bodies to host their games in that country appears more optical than real.  The laws are heavy handed and clumsy and do not appear the most appropriate measure to combat ambush marketing.

The International Olympic Council for one recognise this reality in that they require all of the advertising rights and space for the year of the Games to have been purchased in full by the bidding host country so as to guarantee a “clean venue” for key sponsors.

The contemporary fight against ambush marketers includes a combination of the following initiatives: -

  1. Education and PR initiatives;
  2. On-site policing, which ranges from confiscation of nonsponsor product and signage to the creation of “clean zones”;
  3. The use of contractual language in athlete participation agreements and on spectators’ tickets;
  4. The enactment and enforcement of special trademark protection legislation.


As much as we may indulge the sheer cheek of it all, ambush marketers undermine the Marketing and promotion of sports that comes with official sponsors.  Organisers of major sporting events will exercise rigorous control over everything within and around the outside of the sporting venue as far is legally and practically possible. Given the investments made by official sponsors of major sporting events the lengths they go to can be understood but what have the sausages got to do with it??

*Larry Fenelon is a partner in sports specialist law firm, Leman Solicitors.

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