NEW YORK >> Prepare to be inspired. After all, it's Olympic ad time.
Olympics marketers from Coca-Cola to Samsung are pulling out all the stops this summer, stuffing scores of athletes into ads and telling tearjerker stories.
Coke's ads play on "gold" moments when athletes have a Coke together. An ad for Samsung shows the road to Rio for a runner from South Sudan, the newest country to be recognized by the International Olympic Committee. A Visa ad, customized for different countries around the world, shows a bevy of athletes carpooling to Rio. And P&G continues its "Thank You Mom" campaign with ads focused on how mothers have helped Olympic athletes along the way.
The rah-rah campaigns mask an unsettling truth: It's tough out there for an Olympic marketer. The games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, face a number of big problems ranging from the Zika virus to political upheaval . So companies are opting for campaigns that aim to capitalize on the emotional appeal of the Olympics without lingering too heavily on the specifics of Rio or Brazil.
There's an additional challenge. A new rule allows non-sponsors — that is, companies who haven't paid the International Olympic Committee for the privilege of using Olympic trademarks in their ads and other perks — to make greater use of Olympic athletes in ads.
All that means a lot of risk, given that sponsoring the Olympics costs about $100 million to $200 million over four years. But that hefty price tag has a reward, too: an estimated 20 million viewers every evening on NBC over the three week stretch of the Olympics.
To protect that major investment by sponsors, the Olympic committee long prohibited anyone but sponsors from using Olympic athletes or Olympic rings or logos in ads. But the age of social media made enforcement increasingly difficult, so this year the rules have relaxed.
Advertisers could apply in January to use Olympic athletes in their ads, though they were required to start their campaigns in March and still couldn't use official Olympic terminology or logos. Under Armor has been the most high-profile brand to make use of the looser restrictions, and features swimmer Michael Phelps and other Olympians in ads. Others, including General Mills, Gatorade and Asics, have also applied to advertise under the looser regulation, known as Rule 40.
"Rule 40 is changing the landscape. More advertisers are able to use the Olympics, so sponsors are trying different approaches to stand out," said Villanova marketing professor Charles Taylor.
One way they're doing so is by featuring more athletes in their ads. Coke's campaign features 79 athletes from 23 countries, including new footage of 24 athletes such as U.S. swimmer Nathan Adrian and Australian hurdler Michelle Jennek. The teen-targeted ads show athletes on and off the field sharing a Coke and having memorable moments like a stolen kiss, dubbed "Gold moments."
"The campaign idea is 'Gold' is a feeling anyone can taste," said Rodolfo Echeverria, a Coca-Cola vice president in charge of advertising.
Visa's "The Carpool to Rio" campaign features 15 athletes, including New Zealand shot putter Valerie Adams and U.S. swimmer Missy Franklin. The ad shows off Visa payment technology, such as its mobile app and another swiping a credit card at an automated entrance gate to pay for a ferry. The ad, which is airing in 38 countries, was adapted for 14 different markets by using athletes and styles of payments specific to particular locales.
"It's very much anchored in all the different things Visa can do," said Chris Curtin, Visa's brand marketing officer.
That multi-athlete strategy lets Olympic marketers avoid the problems that can occur if they bank too heavily on individual athletes. In the most infamous case, then-Olympic sponsor Reebok made little known decathletes Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson into household names leading up to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Posing the question, "Who will be the world's greatest athlete, Dan or Dave?," the campaign had to be modified after O'Brien failed to qualify for the games.
Get out the hankies
Of course, it's always possible just to focus more on athletes' inspirational and tearjerker stories than their Olympic achievement. Samsung's "Chant" ad showcases Margret Rumat Rumar Hassan, a 19 year old runner from South Sudan. The ad shows the South Sudanese, a new country in the Olympics, chanting her name and cheering her on. The tagline is "Proud sponsor of those who defy barriers."
"This Olympics the focus is on telling human stories ... the technology doesn't take center stage," said Pio Schunker, Samsung's global head of marketing.
And P&G is continuing its crowdpleasing "Thank You Mom" ads with the tagline "Proud sponsor of moms" that started running in 2010. One of the latest showcases U.S. gymnast Simone Biles and her adoptive mother; it's already garnered more than 2 million views on YouTube.