What Is Ambush Marketing Media Essay

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While most of us catch the traces of company sponsorships at sports events like the Olympics or Soccer World Cup, how many of us can distinguish between the legitimate sponsors and competitors "ambushing" the effectiveness of the sponsor's message? Emerging in the mid-1980s in response to changes in the International Olympic Committee's sponsorship planning, ambush marketing has evolved over the past 25 years into a significant threat to sponsorship, providing an alternative means for organizations seeking to align themselves with valuable sports properties, by associating themselves with an event, without paying the requisite fee to the event owner. This paper examines the meaning, emergence and development of the concept of Ambush Marketing, the role of sponsorships as an important element of Integrated Marketing Communications, the strategies used by ambush marketers, past counter-ambush measures, and recommendations for the same, underlining more proactive and pre-emptive measures for sponsors and organizers to better combat ambush marketing.

Sponsorship of large sporting & cultural events has become a major marketing communication tool, particularly when firms obtain exclusive rights and garner the hype associated with this honor. Concomitantly, ambush marketing-defined as attempts by competitors to exploit the event-has also increased in prominence. Emerging in the mid-1980s in response to changes in the International Olympic Committee's sponsorship planning, ambush marketing has evolved over the past 25 years into a significant threat to sponsorship, providing an alternative means for organizations seeking to align themselves with valuable sports properties, by associating themselves with an event, without paying the requisite fee to the event owner (Burton and Chadwick 2009). They thereby ambushed the legitimate sponsor in terms of giving the impression to consumers that they - the ambusher - were in fact the sponsor.

Since its inception, ambush marketing has been a growing concern for event organizers, rights holders and official sponsors. Regarded as the direct competition between sponsor versus non-sponsor (for example, Nike/Adidas, Visa/American Express or Pepsi/Coca-Cola), ambush marketing campaigns use sporting imagery or themes, vague or misleading wording, and are positioned strategically to create and reinforce an intended misassociation and link a brand to an event or property, without being officially related to it. As sport sponsorship has grown and developed in importance over time, so too have the efforts made by unassociated brands to capitalize on the benefits and value provided by sport. While legally and ethically such efforts have been questioned in the past, from a managerial perspective the commercial consequences presented often outweigh the potential moral implications. Ambush marketing, it has been argued, aims to adversely affect the visibility and awareness sought from an official sponsorship, thus cluttering the market and causing consumer confusion as to who is an official sponsor. However, by drawing consumers' attention away from sponsors, ambushers more directly seek to benefit from the goodwill and emotional attachment afforded to sporting events, negatively affecting a sponsor's investment and enhancing the effectiveness of their own promotional campaigns (Burton and Chadwick 2009).

With ambush marketing, being a two-dimensional concept - many experts gauge the threat it poses to corporate sponsorship, and others note its virtual necessity and advocate its desirability in modern competitive business - it becomes necessary to analyze whether it really is an immoral or an imaginative practice.

Development of Commercial Sponsorships

The sponsorship of attractive sports and cultural events has emerged as an effective global marketing communication tool for companies wishing to raise their awareness level and improve their image across a wide audience, given its ability to transcend language and cultural barriers. Commercial sponsorship for marketing purposes developed during the past forty years or so, out of the desire of marketing communicators to open up new and cost-efficient lines of access to customer groups leading an increasing number of companies to look for ways to engage themselves in event sponsorship.

As a consequence, sponsorship fees have increased dramatically over recent decades. China's Lenovo Group, for example, agreed to pay about US$80m for the personal computer TOP category for the Olympic Games held in Beijing in 2008 and the US-American multicorporate enterprise, General Electric, is expected to pay fees approaching US$200m for its eight-year deal through 2012 (Nufer 2009). The worldwide sponsorship market grew from an estimated $2 billion in 1984 to $13.02 billion in 1994 (Meenaghan 1996).

The sponsorship of sports events is a special form of sports sponsorship. Companies are able to reach their target groups in an attractive sporting setting in an attempt to transfer the positive image of the sports event onto their brand. Global sports events such as the Olympic Games or the FIFA World Cup fascinate people around the world and their sponsorship is, in turn, a powerful vehicle used by major organizations the world over to build brand value. In the process, it has become the foundation of dynamic business-to-business relationships built on the premise that the brand of the sponsor and that of the sport or event it is associated with can be both successfully and synergistically enhanced over time (Farrelly, Quester and Greyser 2005; Stipp and Schiavone, 1996).

As well as generating an audience and thereby influencing corporate or brand awareness, a sponsorship program can also transfer certain image connotations inherent in the activity onto the sponsor. An example of image transfer is provided by Kodak and their 1988 Olympic involvement. The Olympic theme was used to enhance brand image on a worldwide basis and particularly with the youth market. Kodak built a highly effective campaign centering on consumer products such as film, batteries, and cameras using the highly appropriate "Go for the Gold" theme (Meenaghan 1994).

Commercial sponsorship fits quite naturally alongside advertising, public relations, sales promotion, and selling as an element of the marketing communications mix in that its basic function lies in achieving communications objectives. Sponsorship has the ability, perhaps not possessed by other methods of marketing communications, to reach all major corporate publics in a single campaign. Marketers, mainly, employ sponsorship to achieve two major communications objectives: these are awareness and image objectives at both the corporate and brand level (Meenaghan 1994).

However, while strategic partnerships are increasingly important tools of competitive strategies, they also present significant challenges, one of them being, ambush marketing. The practice whereby another company, often a competitor, attempts to deflect some of the audience's attention to itself and away from the sponsor is known as "ambush marketing." With large-scale investments being made by individual companies in major global events, ambush marketing has major implications for corporate sponsors and event owners alike.

What is Ambush Marketing?

Sandler and Shani (1989) were among the first to discuss ambush marketing, which they suggested occurred when a non-sponsor of an event attempted to pass itself off as an official sponsor. Meenaghan (1994) developed this early definition and described ambush marketing as "the practice whereby another company, often a competitor, intrudes upon public attention surrounding the event, thereby deflecting attention toward themselves and away from the sponsor" (Crow and Hoek 2003). In simple words, ambush marketing is exploited by non-sponsors to gain benefits available only to official sponsors.

When a sponsor purchases a sponsorship program, he aims towards orchestrating public attention onto its company or brand. In a typical sponsorship arrangement the sponsor purchases the sponsorship property rights and uses support promotion to further draw public attention to its involvement. The practice whereby another company, often a competitor, intrudes upon public attention surrounding the event, thereby deflecting attention toward themselves and away from the sponsor, is now known as "ambush marketing."

The term "ambush marketing" was initially coined to describe the activities of those companies who sought to associate themselves with an event, without paying the requisite fee to the event owner. They thereby ambushed the legitimate sponsor in terms of giving the impression to consumers that they - the ambusher - were in fact the sponsor. While this narrow view of ambush marketing still exists, the term is now often used more generically to also describe a variety of wholly legitimate and morally correct methods of intruding upon public consciousness surrounding event (Meenaghan 1994). In the current context, the following definition proposed by Burton and Chadwick (2009), covers the concept comprehensively - 'Ambush marketing is a form of associative marketing, utilized by an organization to capitalize upon the awareness, attention, goodwill, and other benefits, generated by having an association with an event or property, without that organization having an official or direct connection to that event or property.'

Evolution of Ambush Marketing

The growth of sponsorships mainly took place for two reasons: first, because of its ability to break through the clutter surrounding advertising and secondly, increase in sophistication of the event owners at development of packages that enabled them to obtain higher returns from their events. This increase in sponsorships' attractiveness resulted in decrease of marketers' ability to enter into sponsorship contracts as the cost of securing these and the level of competition for them rose. Ambush marketing thus arose, when companies which were formerly able to associate themselves with certain high-profile events (such as the Olympics) became excluded from official sponsorship deals, because of increased costs or category exclusivities.

Ambush marketing first gained attention at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, as a result of the restructuring of Olympic sponsorship and organization in the early 1980s. Prior to Los Angeles, Olympic sponsorship contracts were agreed on an open, unrestricted basis, allowing interested parties to associate themselves with the event for payment, financial or in kind. Due to political unrest and the financial constraints experienced by the Olympics in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the organizers of the 1984 Games sought to reform the sponsorship program for the Los Angeles Olympics, as a means of financially stabilizing the Games. Following the unprecedented financial success of Los Angeles, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) instituted and refined a category-exclusive, bundled rights-based sponsorship plan, in an effort to provide greater value for sponsors and generate increased revenues for Olympic organizers. As a result of the changes made, Olympic sponsorship evolved - from 628 official sponsors in 1976, earning $5m in cash and $12m in kind - to $130m in revenues in Los Angeles from only 30 partners. However, while the adoption of this new sponsorship program provided the IOC with greater financial security, granting category exclusivity also opened the door to ambush marketers seeking to capitalize on the event, as they were no longer able to do so officially. As sport sponsorship has grown in importance and sophistication since 1984, so too has ambush marketing, emerging as a legitimate and distinct threat to sponsorship value (Burton and Chadwick 2009).

Sandler and Shani (1989) suggested that the first instance of ambush marketing occurred when Kodak failed to secure sponsorship rights for the 1984 Olympic Games to Fuji. Undeterred, Kodak became the sponsor of the ABC's broadcasts of those Games and the "official film" of the U.S. tracks team. If Fuji was the victim of ambush marketing in 1984, it exacted its revenge on Kodak in 1988. Kodak secured the worldwide category sponsorship for the 1988 Olympic Games, but Fuji aggressively promoted its sponsorship of the U.S. swimming team. In a parallel move, although Coca Cola secured official worldwide sponsorship rights to the 1990 Football World Cup, Pepsi sponsored the high profile Brazilian soccer team (Crow and Hoek 2003).

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has expressed strong concern over ambush marketing; however, the Olympic Games are not the only event where confusion over sponsors and their rivals has occurred. A similar situation arose in early 2003, when the Indian cricket team came close to boycotting the ICC Champions Trophy tournament. Players expressed concern that personal advertising and endorsement contracts they had entered into would conflict with the ICC anti-ambush rules, designed to ensure official sponsors had exclusive promotional rights during the event.

However, this concept has been difficult to analyze and understand. Marketing activities more closely related to guerrilla marketing, parasitic marketing, or simply examples of creative or innovative marketing, have often been condemned as ambushing attempts, further confusing an understanding of ambushing, and the risks posed.

Ambush Marketing Strategies

Meenaghan (1996) identified a few commonly employed ambush marketing strategies including - sponsoring media coverage of an event, a sub-category within the event, or contributing to a "players' pool". He also noted that advertising coinciding with a sponsored event or other promotion, or deflecting attention away from the event, could also be considered ambushing (Crow and Hoek 2003).

Sponsoring Media Coverage of an Event

In some events, sponsorship rights to the event itself do not include associated media coverage rights. So, some non-sponsors obtain broadcasting rights and, in some cases, higher profiles than they themselves obtain, despite their official status.

The most famous example of this is Kodak's sponsorship of the ABC broadcasts of the 1984 Olympics, mentioned earlier. Payne, an IOC representative, viewed Kodak's behavior with concern as he considered it attacked Fuji's rights as an official IOC sponsor. He described ambush marketers as "…. thieves knowingly stealing something that does not belong to them" (Payne 1991) and later argued that "ambush marketing breaches one of the fundamental tenets of business activity, namely truth in advertising and business communications" (Payne 1998). As Fuji had purchased the exclusive category rights to this event from the IOC, Payne considered they had a legitimate right to publicity that might be generated by the event. Kodak infringed upon this right when it purchased the broadcasting sponsorship rights, thereby gaining an association with the event and access to its audience.

However, Jerry C. Welsh, a former marketing executive at American Express, criticized the "weak-minded view that competitors have a moral obligation to step back and allow an official sponsor to reap all the benefits from a special event" (Meenaghan 1996). He further stated that competitors had "not only a right, but an obligation to shareholders to take advantage of such events" and that "all this talk about unethical ambushing is … intellectual rubbish and posturing by people who are sloppy marketers" (Meenaghan 1996). Kodak's behavior, when viewed from Welsh's perspective, would place more responsibility on the event owner's behavior. The category exclusivity introduced in 1984 by the IOC prevented Kodak from obtaining any exposure opportunities once Fuji had secured the Games sponsorship. Worse, because the Games drew such a large audience, many of the other promotional options open to Kodak would have afforded a reduced reach over the period of the Games. Kodak simply chose to capitalize on an ancillary promotional opportunity that was legitimately available for purchase.

From a legal point of view, it is clear that Kodak's behavior did not breach the contract Fuji held with the IOC. Rather, the IOC, in its eagerness to maximize its revenue from both sponsors and broadcasters, failed to protect its sponsors sufficiently. If Fuji believed they had purchased an entitlement to broadcast rights as part of its contract with the IOC, the dispute was a matter between Fuji and the IOC. If Fuji had not expected to obtain broadcast rights as part of the sponsorship contract, they were either remiss in not obtaining these or naïve in believing that a competitor would not take advantage of opportunities legitimately open to it.

Sponsoring a Sub-Category within an Event

In 1988, the roles were reversed: Kodak secured the worldwide category sponsorship for the 1988 Olympic Games, while Fuji obtained sub-sponsorship of the U.S. swimming team, which it promoted aggressively. In this instance, the IOC had conferred official sponsor status on Kodak and viewed Fuji as usurping this arrangement. However, from Fuji's point of view, they had not retained their official sponsor rights and so took advantage of other opportunities that remained available. It is possible that Kodak did not foresee this possibility, though this would be surprising, given their own behavior in 1984. Alternatively, the costs of Kodak's sponsorship may have reflected the fact that competitors could purchase sub-category rights. In this case, the IOC arguably placed more emphasis on ensuring its own revenue streams than it did on safeguarding sponsors' interests.

Making a Sponsorship-Related Contribution to a Players' Pool

As well as purchasing mass media sponsorship rights, rivals of official sponsors can also sponsor teams or individuals competing within specific events. Examples of this form of sponsorship include Adidas' sponsorship of Ian Thorpe when Nike was the official clothing supplier for the Australian Olympic team. Curthoys and Kendall (2002) noted that Thorpe was photographed with his towel draped over Nike's logo at a medal presentation ceremony, a gesture they suggest was necessary to protect his personal contract with Adidas. Curthoys & Kendall also note Cathy Freeman's appearance in advertisements for Telstra, an official Olympics sponsor, and Optus, a rival of Telstra who held no official sponsorship rights. They ask "Should Cathy Freeman have been prohibited from appearing in advertisements for non-official sponsors for a period before the Sydney 2000 Games? While the IOC Charter (binding all athletes) restricts athletes from engaging in marketing activities during the Games period, would it have been fair, even ethical, to limit her activities prior to the Games? Equally, should Optus, the sponsor of athletics in Australia for over 5 years, have been prevented from sponsoring her?"

These questions focus attention on the difficulty of defining ambush marketing, and the need to consider where and when an activity breaches relevant statutes. Although the appearance of an individual wearing apparel from a rival would undoubtedly have irked official apparel suppliers, engaging in sub-category sponsorship may be a legal activity.

Payments to individuals or teams raise the question of whose rights should prevail - those of individual athletes or teams, or those of sporting associations and event owners? The brand endorsement contracts held by members of the Indian cricket team clearly illustrate the potential for conflict between event sponsors and individual sponsors. Team members' lucrative endorsement contracts generate considerable personal revenue and run counter to the International Cricket Council (ICC) ruling that bars players from endorsing the products of companies who are the rivals of ICC sponsors for 30 days either side of ICC events. These examples suggest that companies involved in sub-category sponsorship have not necessarily engaged in illegal behavior. Although official sponsors may see the appearance of rivals' insignia at an event as likely to create confusion, this argument overlooks the fact that rivals have the right to promote their sponsorship associations.

Disputes between Reebok, who was official apparel supplier to the US team at the 1992 Olympics, and Nike, who contracted the US track and field team to wear Nike clothing when competing, illustrate this problem. Reebok considered Nike guilty of stealing exposure and publicity they believe they had purchased when they obtained the apparel sponsorship for the entire U.S. team. However, Nike argued they simply exploited a legitimate sponsorship opportunity open to them. Moreover, Nike's contracts with some of the athletes, for example Michael Johnson, existed well before the 1992 Olympics. Overall, Reebok's involvement with the U.S. Olympic team did not prevent Nike from finding ways to publicize its relationships with athletes and athletics. The ability to exploit these relationships was constrained only by the legally binding agreements that existed between individual athletes, teams, associations, governing bodies and event owners.

The existence of earlier sponsorship contracts questions the level of exclusivity that event owners can offer prospective sponsors and may require a reconsideration of the benefits "exclusive" sponsorship can actually deliver. In particular, the fact the event owners do not own media, venues, or competitors, means they cannot exert full control over all other contracts that may exist. Contracts that specify the contingences within and outside the control of event owners would clarify sponsors' expectations and make them more alert to their competitors' likely behavior. This, in turn, could provide a stronger basis from which to take any legal action, should a rival's actions breach the contract.

Engaging in Advertising that Coincides with a Sponsored Event

Rivals of official sponsors can also purchase normal advertising time and space. Intense advertising by a competitor during or around a sponsored event is also viewed as another form of ambush marketing. Large international sporting events, such as the Olympic Games or Football or Rugby World Cups attract very large audiences, at least some of whom will see or hear advertising that screens during interval periods.

Official sponsors have expressed even more concern about themed advertising that features competitors from sponsored events. For example, during the 1992 Winter Olympics, McDonald's were the official sponsors of the U.S. team, yet Wendy's featured Kristi Yamaguchi, an Olympic champion figure skater, in its advertising. Yet while McDonald's viewed Wendy's behavior as ambushing, Wendy's argued they had a right to maintain the saliency of their brand during the Olympic Games, using airtime available to all advertisers.

During the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Nike held press conferences for Olympic athletes it sponsored and displayed large murals of members of the US basketball team on buildings in Barcelona, even though they were not the official sponsors. Nike manager, Mark Pilkenton rationalized these actions by stating: "…we feel like in any major sporting event, we have the right to come in and give our message as long as we don't interfere with the official proceedings". Pilkenton's comments suggest that ethical considerations do not form part of Nike's decision criteria; instead, they focus on the legality of their actions to ensure they do not breach relevant statutes.

Curthoys & Kendall (2002) discussed Qantas' campaign in the period preceding the 2002 Sydney Olympics, which involved a series of advertisements featuring famous Australian athletes and posters with slogans such as "Australia Wide Olympic Sale". Although Ansett sued Qantas, the issue settled, though not before nearly 60% of the public believed Qantas was the official Olympic airline (compared with the 38% who correctly identified Ansett as the official sponsor). While the Australian public appeared confused, it is difficult to attribute their confusion to the advertising campaign alone, which did not appear either to breach any trademarks or imply official associations that did not exist.

Although event owners clearly resent these activities, Welsh challenges their thinking: "The…notion, that non-sponsors have a moral or ethical obligation to market themselves away from the thematic space of a sponsored property, is nonsense. Smart marketers have long recognized that view as a commercial non-starter and an intellectual affront". Non-sponsors' rights, according to this reasoning, extend to everything not specifically prohibited by law or by a legally enforceable contract.

Development of Other Imaginative Ambush Strategies

As marketers make greater use of new media such as text messaging and event merchandising, so ambush marketing strategies have also become more creative. Fosters allegedly ambushed the official England sponsors, Steinlager, when they ran a campaign in Britain during the 1992 Rugby World Cup with the tag line "Swing low sweet carry-out". This was an obvious play on the words of the English rugby anthem "Swing low sweet chariot" and an alleged attempt to obtain benefits that an association with the English team might bring. McKelvey (1994) noted a range of other possible promotions. "… non-sponsors handing out coupons and caps to spectators, hanging banners from tall buildings, running 'good luck' and 'congratulations' ads, purchasing billboards around the venue, using World Cup tickets in consumer sweepstakes etc….". McKelvey (2003) later noted the use of temporary tattoos, or "body billboards" on athletes as presenting another challenge to event owners wishing to preserve the exclusivity of official sponsorship rights. Increasing awareness of the use of merchandise to promote a rival's brand has seen event officials screen spectators and prohibit entry to those who wear apparel that bears a rival's logo. A South African newspaper reports that schoolchildren with Coca Cola in their lunch boxes had to peel off the can labels and scrape off Coca Cola logos from bottle tops and lids before they could enter a World Cup cricket match.


Freeloading describes the activities of companies who attempt to gain the benefit of an association with a school's athletic department without paying sponsorship fees, and school administrators' willingness to tolerate these activities on the basis of the publicity that these activities create. The term freeloader is derived from a term commonly described in introductory economics courses as 'free riders.' Freeloading revolves around those merchants near college campuses who are willing to use the resource of the public's goodwill toward a college's athletic program to generate sales of their own merchandise. In the case of freeloaders, this willingness to benefit is not coupled with paying the school's athletic department to become sponsors or official affiliates. These activities distinguish themselves from ambush marketing at events such as the Olympic Games or the Super Bowl in that they are not event specific, but are ongoing activities that will reap benefits for the business over a longer period of time. This characteristic may combine with the preexisting strong affinity many consumers have with the local school to give this type of ambush marketer an even more profound advantage when compared with ambush marketers identified in other contexts.

Sample Ambush Marketing Cases

Some notable instances of ambush marketing are as follows:

2008 - UEFA Euro 2008: Austria and Switzerland: Heineken, in an effort to ambush Carlsberg's official sponsorship, created marching band-style 'Trom-Pets' (drum hats) for Dutch fans on their way to Berne which also acted as drums, branded with the Heineken logo and name; the advertisements featured Dutch fans travelling to Switzerland, visiting the official Oranje fans camping complex, and Heineken marketing executives plotting ways to ambush the European Championships.

2006 - FIFA World Cup: Germany: Ambusher - Bavaria Brewery, Ambushee - Budweiser: Stadium officials forced fans to remove Bavaria's promotional wear - orange lederhosen promoting Bavaria - and watch the game in their underwear.

2002 - Winter Olympics: Salt lake City, Utah: Ambusher - Schirf Brewery, Ambushee - Anheuser-Busch: Schirf Brewery, a brewery local to Salt Lake City, advertised on its delivery trucks during the Olympic Games as 'The Unofficial Beer. 2002 Winter Games'; by not using Olympic trade marks or copyrighted material such as 'Olympics' or 'Winter Olympics', Schirf's advertisements were legitimate and legally allowable.

1996 - UEFA Euro 1996: England: Ambusher - Nike, Ambushee - Umbro: Nike purchased all poster space/advertising sites in and around Wembley Park tube station as a means of promoting the brand during the event; these actions sparked UEFA's pre-emptive measures taken for Euro 2000 and tournaments since (renting all advertising media within 1-3km radii of venues).

1996 - Summer Olympics: Atlanta, Georgia: Ambusher - Nike, Ambushee - Reebok Converse: Nike took out an 8-page advertising spread in Sports Illustrated, using Nike-endorsed Olympic athletes and slightly altered official Olympic slogans; Reebok responded by publicly shaming Nike, and speaking out against such practices.

1996 - Summer Olympics: Atlanta, Georgia: Ambusher - Nike, Ambushee - Reebok Converse: Nike constructed a Nike store outside the athlete's village with large, highly visible logos, in an attempt to gain association with the Olympic Games. The complex was highly visible throughout coverage of the Games, and became a visitor attraction around the venue.

1990 - National Hockey League: Canada: Ambusher - Pepsi Cola, Ambushee - Coca-Cola NHL: With the permission of official broadcast advertiser Molson Breweries, Pepsi ran advertisements during CBC NHL broadcasts announcing a 'pro hockey pool' endorsed by commentator Don Cherry; the NHL filed a lawsuit against Pepsi for attempted passing off, however the court ruled against the NHL, ruling that Pepsi's goods/services in this case were not sufficiently tied with the claimant to constitute passing off.

A New Zealand case, NZRFU vs Canterbury International Limited, raised questions about the extent to which ex-sponsors could feature past sponsorship alliances in their advertising. CIL, a former NZRFU sponsor that supplied apparel to the All Blacks for over 70 years, produced a range of rugby jerseys that featured a stylized silver fern logo and the word "Invincibles". The NZRFU objected to CIL's use of the word "Invincibles" since this referred to a former All Black team and, according to the NZRFU, had the potential to mislead the public into believing CIL still had an official association with the All Blacks. In other words, the NZRFU alleged that CIL had ambushed the new apparel contract that they had entered into with Adidas.

1998: Despite Adidas being the sponsor of the 1998 FIFA World Cup, Nike decided to sponsor individual teams.

1992: In the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, Michael Jordan (sponsored by Nike) covered the Reebok sign on his gear while accepting his gold medal for USA basketball. Nike also sponsored the press conference for the "Dream Team" even though Reebok was their official sponsor

2002: Despite the 2002 Boston Marathon being sponsored by Adidas, Nike supplied the runners with spray painted swooshes that commemorated the day of the race, but not the race itself.

It was an ambush in the skies that Hindustan Unilever launched against archrival Procter & Gamble, spoiling the latter's elaborately laid-out plans for its shampoo brand Pantene. The story started on July 23, when Mumbai woke up to hoardings that screamed: 'A Mystery Shampoo!! 80% women say is better than anything else'. P&G, it was later found, was planning to unveil the new Pantene on August 1. When the suits at HUL found out, they saw an opportunity to score a point. They ambushed P&G. On July 28, even as the P&G hoardings stood tall on its skyline, Mumbai woke up to another hoarding that was upfront, and suggestive of its source of inspiration. It said: 'There is no mystery. Dove is the No.1 shampoo'. Dove is one of the four brands in HUL's shampoo portfolio. 

Counter-Ambush Measures: Past, Present and Future

Throughout its evolution, two notable categories of counter-ambush strategies emerged:

• Reactive strategies: countering ambush attempts & compensating for the damages caused

• Proactive attempts: anticipating, deterring and preventing such campaigns

Reactive strategies

Dating back to the earliest cases of ambush marketing, a significant majority of ambush defense strategies were of a reactive, and typically defensive, nature, which acknowledged ambushing as a threat to sponsorship.

Perhaps the most common reactive strategy used early in ambushing's history, was that of 'name and shame' PR campaigns, decrying in the media the unethical, inappropriate or unlawful marketing attempts by a sponsor's competitor in ambushing an event. However, as ambushing has evolved and become a more common and accepted practice, such denouncements have decreased in number. This could be because sports properties are aware of the added media attention given to ambushers by naming and shaming, providing added promotional benefit to ambush marketers.

Legal action in protecting sponsorship is a further example of the reactionary measures in countering ambush marketing efforts. Such instances can be divided into two categories: intellectual property rights cases, dealing with issues of trademark or copyright infringement, or the unauthorized distribution of tickets; and issues of passing off or misappropriation, the act of selling goods or providing services under the intended assumption of connection with another organization. However, given the short-term nature of most sporting events at which ambushing occurs, such legal manoeuvres may not be as effective as hoped and in fact cases that have ended in court have, in many instances, brought more attention to the ambusher, providing free added publicity to ambushing companies.

Unfortunately, ambushers have been much more successful in circumventing the issue of passing off, as evidenced by two high-profile ambush marketing cases: the National Hockey League v Pepsi-Cola Canada and the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) v Canterbury International Ltd. Passing off, also commonly known as misappropriation, is the legal means within common law to protect against the misrepresentation of one's goods, services, or commercial property as having some association or affiliation with an outside party when no such link exists. This legal protection remains a difficult, and potentially costly, remedy to seek, as the plaintiff must successfully argue that the efforts of the defendant sufficiently and knowingly confused consumers and misrepresented an association, incurring damages.

There is nevertheless some cause for optimism for sponsors seeking legal remedies. In the majority of cases dealing with trademark infringement or copyright laws, sponsors and properties have been protected, and intellectual property rights have been respected. The National Football League attempted, in 2006, to register the term 'The Big Game' to prevent ambushing of the Super Bowl. Such forethought and anticipation of potential ambushing opportunities is indicative of the evolution of counterstrategies, a paradigm shift from reactive to proactive measures experienced over the past decade.

Proactive strategies

Pre-emptive measures, aimed at preventing, deterring or limiting ambush opportunities, provide sponsors and rights holders with a number of advantages, and would appear intuitively to be more successful in defending sponsors than reactive strategies. Results, however, are mixed. A number of the initiatives employed to combat ambush marketing, though, have helped limit opportunities and forced ambushers to seek alternative strategies, a sign of progress in the defense of sponsorship.

Consider, for example, the efforts of UEFA following Euro 1996 and the 1998 FIFA World Cup. After Nike's use of surrounding billboards and advertising media around Wembley Stadium and other host venues in 1996, and again in France in 1998, UEFA enacted new regulations forcing future event hosts to secure all available advertising media surrounding venues, creating competitive marketing-free zones for sponsors.

Similar strategies have also been adopted by organizations such as the IOC, and provide event hosts with two key benefits: (i) such measures limit opportunities for ambushers and restrict easy access to media attention and consumer awareness surrounding the event; and (ii) by renting or buying all available advertising media, rights holders can - and must - package their properties into sponsorship agreements, thus not only protecting their sponsors, but also generating added value and revenue, and forcing sponsors to better leverage their affiliation.

Another strategy increasingly employed, as previously suggested by Meenaghan has been the linking of event and broadcast sponsorships. UEFA again was among the first to regulate broadcast advertising for its events, along with the IOC, further adding to its sponsorship packages and eliminating other easy opportunities for ambushers. Unfortunately, while both of these counterstrategies successfully limited certain ambush opportunities, the creativity of ambush marketers, as well as the continuous growth and development of new marketing alternatives, has meant that - to a large extent - ambushing has grown and further developed, rather than decreased in effectiveness or frequency.

Perhaps more effective in deterring potential ambushers, and an emergent theme in protecting against ambush marketing over the past decade, has been the adoption by host countries/regions of anti-ambushing laws. Beginning with the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK have been among those host countries enacting such legislation, an increasingly necessary component in any successful bid to host a major event such as the Olympics. The success of these measures, however, remains to be seen.

Possible Remedies

Commercial pragmatism may, over time, overcome some of the emotion currently associated with the issue of ambush marketing. This suggests that event owners have accepted that the level of brand competition that exists in other media is also likely to occur in sponsorship and associated activities.

Let us take a look at some counter-ambush measures (Crow and Hoek 2003):

Event owners could reduce the number of sponsorship categories they sell. As the revenue from sponsorship has increased, temptation to increase the number of sponsorship levels and classes has also grown. While this practice increases event owner's income, it clearly also heightens the chance that rivals will both secure rights to the event. So, event owners need either to reduce the range of packages sold or undertake detailed promotions that increase the public's knowledge of their status.

Given the inconsistencies that have emerged between event sponsorship and broadcast sponsorship, event owners need to manage the sale of these rights carefully. Event owners can generate considerable revenue by accepting bids for telecast rights. However, broadcasters must also recoup the expense of securing rights, which may entail selling more advertising space and offering sub-sponsorship rights within event telecasts. Event owners should reduce the cost of broadcast rights in return for obtaining more control over who these are sold to.

Event owners have also moved to develop legal protection of the rights they sell to official sponsors. The organizing committee for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games successfully lobbied for new legal protections as part of a comprehensive brand protection strategy. The Sydney 2000 Games (Indicia and Images) Protection Act 1996 formed part of a carefully orchestrated strategy to reduce the incidence of ambushing at the 2000 Olympic Games. However, while the introduction of new laws may afford additional protection, the onus is still on event owners to prove that a breach occurred or that confusion was a likely outcome of a rival trader's behavior.

There must also be a concerted effort by event owners to provide transparency as to the actual rights purchased. This calls for tighter sponsorship contracts that better define event owners' responsibilities and sponsors' rights as providing more grounds for action and a greater range of remedies. The specific points that ought to be made clear in contracts include the rights licensed, the terms of the license, prohibited uses, and rights regarding signage, trademarks and hospitality.

Another measure can be the use of an education program, designed to ensure consumers are aware that not all advertisers are official sponsors of an event. The IOC has developed aggressive advertising campaigns suggesting that ambushers are attempting to dupe the public and freeload on the values of the official Olympic movement by undermining the rights secured by their competitors.

An IOC report on the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympic Games also set out several measures used to reduce the incidence of ambush marketing. These included full registration of trademarks & copyright material at state and federal levels, and internationally. In addition, the IOC undertook close monitoring of the manner in which Olympic marks were used and prohibited unauthorized use of these, including suing companies they considered had breached their trademarks. They also instituted audit programs, together with photo audits of commercial activity within the Olympic venues and mystery shopper programs to detect unauthorized merchandise. Finally, the IOC designed an education program to increase knowledge of ambush marketing and to discredit alleged ambushers.

Sponsors need to purchase mass media time and space to promote their sponsorship and spend two to three times the cost of the sponsorship rights to promote their association with an event. This suggests the logical means of combating ambush marketing is to purchase all the media and sub-category sponsorship rights to the event. Shiu (2002) summarizes this view when he suggested controlling ambush marketing involved buying up all "rights to all the teams, or all the broadcast rights, or all the space for 10 miles around… if you won't or can't do that, then you open the door to ambushers".

Ambush Marketing: Immoral or Imaginative Practice?

Ambush marketing is often thought clever by the 'marketing community' and indeed, some campaigns can be very creative by trying to ride on the back of rights that another brand has bought into. Jerry C. Welsh, who is known to have coined the term, "Ambush Marketing" years ago, says, "In explaining the practice of Ambush Marketing, and in noting its virtual necessity in modern competitive business practice, and in advocating its desirability - indeed its inevitability - there is no need to discuss ethics or morality. Companies routinely compete, mostly, we hope and expect, honestly and hard; and Ambush Marketing, correctly understood and rightly practiced, is an important, ethically correct, competitive tool in a non-sponsoring company's arsenal of business-and-image-building-weapons. To think otherwise is either not to understand - or willfully to misrepresent - the meaning of Ambush Marketing and its significance for good - and winning - marketing practice. Let's acknowledge that, given the already high and continually rising prices for some of these sponsorships, it is hardly surprising that some companies willingly pass on the opportunity to sponsor, and undertake the search for ways to compete in the sponsored space without bearing the onerous costs, and often the heavy burden, of the scandals and other misadventures often associated with large modern sponsored properties, particularly some of those in professional sports… The contrary notion, put forward largely by sloppy event organizers, that non-sponsors have a moral or ethical obligation to market themselves totally away from the thematic space of a sponsored property, is simply nonsense which smart marketers have long recognized as a commercial non-starter, as well as an intellectual affront. Sponsors have bought a specific property; they have not bought a thematic space. Accordingly, they have no right to police, protect, and otherwise administer what they have not bought, have not created, and, therefore, do not own. In the world of modern marketing, sponsor and ambusher are not moral labels to be assigned by the self-appointed arbiters of ethics, but merely the names to be given to two different - and complementary, if competing -- roles played by competitors vying for consumer loyalty and recognition in the same thematic space".


Overall, opinions about ambush marketing over the ethics of these activities remain sharply divided. Many see these promotions as an unfair erosion of the benefits only official sponsors should obtain, and a threat to the sponsorship revenue that event owners can obtain. However, these arguments do not consider the commercial rights of the official sponsor's competitors or the legal status of their actions. Closer analysis suggests that the rival promotions undertaken were all legally available. Overall, all advertisers have a right to promote their brands using media opportunities that have not previously been ceded to sponsors or event owners. The fact that many alleged ambushes used media opportunities open to all advertisers suggests a need for greater co-ordination between media and event owners.

It seems integral to the success of sport sponsorship that sponsors not only become much more proactive in their defense against ambushing, but also acknowledge the importance of preventative measures, anticipating potential opportunities for ambushers and taking the necessary steps to block such attempts. Early counter-ambushing strategies centered on reactive, rights-holder-based measures, yet evidence suggests such attempts have been only marginally successful in protecting sponsors. In order for reactive measures to be effective, they must be strong enough to deter repeat or continued ambushing practices, which, based on the number of repeat offenders found, and the high visibility of ambush campaigns.

If an ambusher's primary objective is to create confusion and uncertainty in the minds of consumers as to who officially sponsors an event and draw some of the favorable attitude or opinion afforded to sponsors to themselves, then allowing ambushers to communicate their message accomplishes this goal. Any subsequent actions by sponsors or organizers must then serve to deter future efforts or to restore the sponsor's original status or position, objectives which have been largely unsuccessful to date. Given consumers' previously stated apathetic opinion towards ambushing