The radio-controlled miniature versions of an iconic British automobile shuttling javelins and hammers back to athletes at the London Olympics are drawing attention and raising questions about a ban on advertising within sports venues at the games.
The quarter-scale Minis are made by Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW), who’s BMW brand is the London Games’ official automotive partner. The small vehicles carry no company logos but are 9,000 pound ($14,000) copies of the current edition of the low-slung, squared off real thing produced by the Munich, Germany-based automaker.
Advertising is banned in Olympic stadiums and related venues. In London, sponsors, including those at the highest level who plow almost $1 billion into deals with the International Olympic Committee, are pushing the boundaries.
“It’s got no branding on it, it’s got no Mini badge on it,” BMW spokesman Graham Biggs said of the little cars. “But people like to recognize things and we’ve had a fantastic reaction from people who see them in the stadium. The whole idea of Mini is it’s a fun brand, the cars are cute and they have a smiley face.”
Similar radio-controlled vehicles ferried discuses, shot puts, javelins and throwing hammers back to the start at the 2008 Games in Beijing. Those were bland blobs on tiny wheels, not copies of a beloved car first manufactured by the British Motor Corp. in the 1950s and ‘60s.
BMW has had to be creative because, unlike soccer’s World Cup and most other sports events, sponsors aren’t allowed to advertise inside Olympic venues. Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, the basic rules of the games, says “commercial installations and advertising signs shall not be allowed in the stadia.”
Some athletes, including Michael Phelps, the U.S. swimmer who capped his career in London after winning a record 22 medals, have been seen to remove Coca-Cola Co. (KO:US) products placed in front of them by officials at the start of press conferences.
“We recognize that people have commercial endorsements on the outside, though in a perfect world they’d be a little more enlightened and recognize Coke’s longstanding partnership and sponsorship of the Olympics,” Joe Tripodi, chief marketing officer of Atlanta-based Coca Cola, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “Short term, I understand what they’re doing. It disappoints us but it is what it is.”
When Phelps, who’s not a Coke endorser, met the media after his final swim on Aug. 4, it was the first time he hadn’t removed the bottles. He was even drinking from a bottle of Coke, after removing the label.
Mark Adams, a spokesman for the Lausanne, Switzerland-based IOC, said Coke had been a sponsor of the games since 1928 and made its drinks available across Olympic sites, including press conferences.
“This is consistent with previous Olympic games,” he said. The IOC said its 11 top-tier sponsors paid $957 million since 2009 to attach the Olympic rings to their products worldwide.
McDonald’s Corp. (MCD:US), which pays $100 million over four years to be affiliated as a top partner of the Olympics, has seen some of the past restrictions relaxed. The world’s largest restaurant chain was able to bring 200 children to the games and give them behind-the-scenes access to play beach volleyball at Horse Guards Parade and try archery at Lord’s cricket ground. Getting the children there involved four years of talks about how McDonald’s could get more for its money.
“We felt there was a lot more value we could add,” Timo Lumme, the IOC’s director of TV and marketing services, said according to the Sports Business Journal. “We try to dimensionalize the relationship beyond just being the basic sponsorship.”
Lume didn’t immediately return an e-mail sent through the IOC media office seeking comment on the sponsor relationship.
While BMW and Coke are getting added exposure, luxury Swiss watchmaker Omega SA is taking advantage of its status as a “Worldwide Olympic Partner” with branded timing screens visible at every event. It even has its name on the bell that’s rung to signal the final laps in races at the track, pool and velodrome.
“People are querying why Omega are so prominent and nobody else gets any branding,” Nigel Currie, managing director of BrandRapport Ltd., a marketing consultant, said in a telephone interview. “It’s a good question and nobody seems to know the answer.”
For other companies -- even some which have paid to be part of the “Olympic Family” of athletes, Olympic officials, broadcast rights-holders and sponsors -- the restrictions are some of the most exacting around.
Kraft Foods Inc.’s (KFT:US) Cadbury unit is an official “supporter” of this year’s games, yet its candy bars are kept in closed boxes and aren’t allowed to be on show at food outlets around the stadium.
Michael Payne, the IOC’s first marketing and broadcast- rights director from 1983 to 2004, said London’s Olympic Park is the “cleanest” he’s seen as far as ads go.
“From what I’ve seen overall it’s as well or better controlled than previous games,” Payne said in an interview.
Product suppliers not on the roster of Olympic sponsors have to go even further to hide their identities. The jars of pickles and eggs steeped in vinegar at fish-and-chip stalls in the Olympic Park had their labels removed, and bags of potato chips are sold in plain silver packs.
“Even though we see the best sports in the world, it’s still a money making machine,” said Ian Richards, a 42-year-old Briton, while buying two bottles of Heineken beer from a vendor manning an unmarked trough inside the Olympic Park, the main group of venues. “Unfortunately it’s a capitalist society. You pay your money, you get to display.”
BMW also provides cars to carry athletes to their medal ceremonies and has a fleet of full-size Minis that take athletes’ samples to the central doping control lab, Biggs said.
The sponsorship at the London Games is through agreement with local organizers and is provided by BMW U.K., which has decided not to bid to be automotive partner to the games in Rio in 2016, Biggs said.
Organizers had no problem with the marketing potential of using the car’s design for the field vehicles, according to Biggs.
“They could see how visually interesting it would be,” he said.