When the Netherlands played Denmark in front of an 80,000 strong crowd in Johannesburg, the greatest shock came not from the score, but from the furore surrounding the activities of a number of female Dutch supporters. The supporters in question, 36 young blonde women wearing orange mini-dresses associated with the Dutch brewer Bavaria, found themselves escorted from the venue with 2 later facing criminal charges for ‘unlawful commercial activities’ as part of a crack-down on what is known as ‘Ambush Marketing’. Ambush Marketing isn’t a new phenomenon, yet it is highly creative and causes a real headache for the organisers of major events such as the Olympics and World Cup and their PR departments. But what does Ambush Marketing, and the lucrative Sponsorship arrangements it is designed to protect, mean for the experience of consumers and their perceptions of the brands involved?
Looking at sponsorship from a purely rational economic perspective would indicate that it is of benefit for supporters and consumers; common sense dictating that sponsorship revenues should reduce ticket prices for fans and subsidise television broadcast costs, enabling operators to provide free rather than pay-per-view access for viewers. Under this guise, Ambush Marketing would appear to fly in the face of customer interest, yet when FIFA (the governing body responsible for co-ordinating the World Cup) and the South African authorities take such an authoritarian stance, it is their brands and that of the relevant official sponsors (in this case Budweiser) that suffer. Regardless of the actual agendas of the Dutch women in question (of whom the 2 facing charges are accused of organising the stunt), the hard-line response appears largely disproportionate – painting a picture of FIFA as an overzealous disciplinarian protecting a helpless Budweiser. To make matters worse for the American brewer, the widespread press coverage surrounding the events of the 14th June plays straight into the hands of Bavaria, for whom the free press coverage is a PR coup and a dream come true. The whole saga is becoming something of an ‘own-goal’ for Fifa, South Africa and Budweiser. Brand image aside, there are cases where the protection of sponsors is directly detrimental to customer interest; nowhere more prevalent than Visa’s sponsorship clauses around the Olympic Games. Those looking to purchase tickets for 2012 will only be able to do so using a Visa card, an arrangement that has been in place for a number of previous games, and one which is incurring the wrath of consumer rights advocates such as the Office of Fair Trading. Activities such as these do not create a good experience for fans and consumers; restricting choice and meaning many will have to purchase or arrange a Visa card solely to buy tickets. Surely those forced to acquire a Visa will think very poorly of the brand, perhaps even contemplating the shredding of it following the Olympics? To add to the farce, East London residents will cover an estimated £625 million of 2012 costs through increased council tax (over 60 times larger than the £10m Visa will pay for sponsorship rights), yet will not be offered priority tickets due to EU legislation. Living in an East London borough I’m admittedly biased, but few could argue that this leaves a distinctly sour taste. I for one will be boycotting the games, choosing instead to go on holiday in summer 2012. A holiday paid for, of course, with American Express.