Cup beer sponsors are upstaged by rival’s 36 blondes

Marketing people like to think of themselves as “creatives”, but last week a few red (or indeed, orange) lines were drawn around their art.

On Wednesday, South African authorities arrested two Dutch women for being the ringleaders of a group of 36 blondes who appeared at the Holland-Denmark World Cup game on Monday dressed in orange mini-dresses. Their offence wasn’t against fashion, but against the big-money sponsorship that subsidises major sporting events. The frocks were supplied by a Dutch beer company called (confusingly) Bavaria

The spectacle of 36 blondes in mini-dresses at a football match was a picture editor’s fantasy and it was unsurprisingly reported around the world. In the United Kingdom the hapless involvement of Robbie Earle turned the story into front-page news and resulted in Bavaria’s website traffic going from negligible to the fifth most visited UK beer site of the week.

This was the latest example of “ambush marketing” — where a brand attempts to associate itself with an event without shelling out for sponsorship. This guerrilla genre has a rich history: Linford Christie wearing Puma logo contact lenses at the Reebok-sponsored 1996 Olympics; American Express running ads claiming Americans do not need “visas” to travel to Norway for the Visa-sponsored 1994 Winter Olympics; and Dutch fans being forced to watch the 2006 World Cup in their underpants because their orange lederhosen were advertising, you guessed it, Bavaria beer. Even politics has been targeted, with models for clothes label Abercrombie & Fitch taking prominent positions behind Barack Obama at a Democratic primary election rally in 2008.

South Africa passed laws in the run-up to the World Cup that made ambush marketing a criminal offence. However, going legal has only created more publicity for Bavaria and begins to reflect badly on the official beer sponsor Budweiser — a tie-up many of us only became aware of because of the orange intervention. One might surmise that what narks Fifa is that Bavaria and other chancers expose the waste of money in being the main sponsor — we enjoy seeing David getting one over Goliath.

Yet you don’t have to be a David to benefit from ambush marketing. You could claim Nike are the greatest ambushers of all. Back in 1992 at the Barcelona Olympics, Nike main man Michael Jordan covered up the official Reebok logo on his kit when he accepted a gold medal. Nike never sponsors events, preferring to underwrite teams and individuals. Adidas may be the official sponsors of the World Cup but they can’t stop nine national teams flashing Nike logos or individual players straining the netting with Nike Elite boots. Meanwhile, Adidas designed the wobbly ball.

The London Organising Committee for the 2012 Olympics doesn’t like an ambush. The Olympics Act of 2006 bans the use of terms such as “2012, games, gold, silver and bronze” in combination except by those who are official sponsors. The Chartered Institute of Marketing feels they’ve over-legislated and published a paper called “The event that dare not speak its name: Marketing and the Olympics”.

As advertising goes viral expect more of these spats. As more marketing relies on flashmobs, social networking and brand ambassadors, where an ambush begins and ends is harder to spot. But the victims of ambush marketing aren’t the consumers. We’re the benefactors, as it’s usually a lot more fun to watch than the regular stuff. –

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