At Airbnb, hopes were sky-high three years ago when the company reached deep into its pockets for $500 million to sign on as a major Olympic sponsor, placing itself in the rare company of such gilded brand names as Coca-Cola, Visa, and Procter & Gamble. Airbnb executives were not only enamored at the opportunity to join the exclusive club of top sponsors, but eager to bring their emerging hospitality brand to the forefront at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games and the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.
But those hopes were quickly dampened. First, the pandemic—which left its unwelcome imprint on the ’20 Games (postponed until ’21), and now the ’22 Games. Then yet another issue that Olympic sponsors are disinclined to address, but that the Chinese government can’t shake: criticism for human rights abuses.
Within China’s borders—the start of the Winter Games just hours away—some 3 million Uyghur, Kazakh and other Turkic Muslim peoples in the Xinjiang region of China are imprisoned in camps. Many are children. Still, 14 so-call “TOP” (The Olympic Partner Program) sponsors paid an estimated $100 million each for the privilege of adorning the iconic Olympic rings in their ads during the Winter Games in Beijing. In July, members of Congress grilled top executives from Coca-Cola, Visa, Procter & Gamble, and Airbnb about sticking by their Olympic sponsorships, and last month, the Biden Administration announced a diplomatic boycott of The Games due to these deadly human rights abuses. In a rare moment of bipartisan agreement, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), sent a stinging letter to top Olympic sponsors last week that chastised them for ignoring the ongoing genocide “in blind pursuit of profits.” The letter urged them to cease funding the Olympic Games until they are moved from Beijing.
The sponsors’ silence leading up to the Winter Games—not just related to human rights issues, but to virtually any Olympic-related marketing domestically—has been deafening. TIME reached out to 10 TOP Olympic sponsors to ask about their Olympic ad campaigns and about human rights issues in China. Only two sponsors responded (Olympic sponsorship newcomer Airbnb and long-time sponsor Omega), but none agreed to respond to specific questions about China’s human rights abuses on the record.
Omega’s press office sent a copy of its “We Measure” Olympic ad campaign that celebrates the special qualities of Olympic athletes, such as willpower and unity. But Omega offered only a general response to the human rights question: “During our long partnership with the IOC, it has been our policy not to get involved in political issues because it would not advance the cause of sport in which our commitment lies.”
Newcomer Airbnb’s response was slightly more direct. Like any new sponsor, it’s naturally itching to cash in on its massive Olympic investment. But Airbnb chief spokesman Christopher Nulty confirmed to TIME, in an email, that Airbnb is not planning to launch any marketing campaigns around the Beijing 2022 Olympics. He declined to state why—or to answer any specific questions. Instead, the email said, Airbnb’s nine-year OIympic partnership is “organized around the economic empowerment of individual athletes.”
While Coca-Cola declined to respond to inquiries from TIME, the trade publication Advertising Age has reported that Coca-Cola also will not run a global ad campaign during the Winter Games.
The silence of Olympic sponsors isn’t particularly surprising. The Chinese government is placing enormous pressure on sponsors—and athletes—not to speak out. And these are largely global companies, for which China represents the number one or number two market. “You’re not going to alienate your business in China by making a PR statement in the USA,” says Rob Prazmark, founder of 21 Sports & Entertainment Marketing Group, which formerly consulted with the International Olympic Committee and which helped to create the TOP program.
Still, it’s a risk with the massive U.S. market as well. Airbnb and Coca-Cola’s responses focusing on the future indicate they’re hoping their sponsorships will fly under the radar in 2022. “TOP marketers will absorb the hit like a bad year on Wall Street and go on to say, better days are sure to come,” says Prazmark. Major Olympic sponsors are in it for the long-haul, he says. From a sponsorship and marketing perspective, they are willing to basically write off the Beijing Winter Games “and make up for it in future Olympics in Paris, Italy, LA, or Australia.”
“I am sure the IOC and the long-term Olympic advertisers can’t wait for Paris 2024,” says Stephen Greyser, a sports business marketing professor at Harvard Business School. “There may be protests going on, but Paris will be an embracing environment compared to China.”
But, as the opening ceremonies loom, Alex Bogusky is waiting for a brave dissenter.
Twelve years ago, Bogusky, co-founder of the Crispin Porter + Bogusky, was one of the fastest-rising and most successful ad executives in the industry. Adweek named him “Creative Director of the Decade” in 2009. But his constant disappointment with the ad industry’s ethics led him to leave the agency and the industry in 2010. He returned to the agency in 2018, only to leave—once again, disappointed—18 months later.
Bogusky, who refers to himself as a “recovering ad executive,” believes that goodness rises. He believes that at least one CEO of a major Olympic sponsor or a big Olympic advertiser will publicly speak out on human rights issues during the Beijing Games—possibly even in its advertising. “The consciousness of consumers and the relationship of brands to advertisers is radically different than15 years ago,” he says.
A growing number of consumers who spot the Olympic rings on a product that is advertised during the Beijing Winter Games will see those rings—for the first time—as what Bogusky calls a “reverse certification.” In other words, he says, “When I see the rings I know I won’t buy that product, whether it turns up on a laptop or bottle of soda pop.” Bogusky, who says he has enormous respect for the Olympic athletes themselves, says he can’t remember another time when consumers could look for a symbol that says a company doesn’t really give a hoot about human rights.
“Consumers are holding brands to a higher level of responsibility,” he says. “You can no longer sponsor an Olympic Games and hope that it will only be about what happens inside the Olympic stadium walls.”
Still, former Olympian and senior active member of the International Olympic Committee Dick Pound doesn’t see any brand stepping out of line this time.
Pound’s name is almost as indelibly linked with the Olympics as the iconic rings themselves. At 79, he has overseen both Olympic marketing and key Olympic investigations at various times in his tenure.
“You’re not going to bring a conduct change by boycotting the Olympics,” he says. While the human rights activists are well-meaning, Pound says, it’s not as if a boycott influenced Moscow to change its ways back in 1980. “It doesn’t accomplish anything but to destroy the lives of incredible athletes.”
This is why, once the Olympic torch is lit, says David Carter, founder, principal, and sports industry strategy advisor at The Sports Business Group, “The pendulum will swing back to covering the athletes.” Until then, he says, “A little bit of silence (on human rights issues) will go a long way” for Olympic sponsors. “You have to live to fight another day.”
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