• Kanhaiya Maheshwary

High octane Ambush Marketing - How Nike and AmEx won at the Olympics!

Brands dueling with each other on social media might be common sight today. But the early origins and encounters of one-upmanship among brands are far more fascinating than anything you may ever witness on Twitter or Facebook. We're talking about campaigns that were so deeply original in style and execution that a whole another category of marketing had to be coined in order to define them. 'Ambush Marketing', as we know it today, is most commonly defined as a marketing strategy wherein an advertiser uses 'covert' methods to hijack (ambush) an event where their rival is advertising. But it also may also denote non-event based advertising where an advertiser simply waits in a concealed position to pounce upon its rivals and in turn gain awareness and exposure.


Few examples of modern-day Ambush marketing campaigns


But what we're essentially here to discuss today are a few stellar campaigns at one of the world's biggest eye-ball grabbing and attendance-pulling events - The Olympics! Imagine the multi-million dollar deals that advertisers buy, only for their rival to out-smart them and run away after having the last laugh. And that's exactly what happened at the '92 Barcelona Olympics, and '96 Atlanta Olympics. American Express and Nike not only managed to take a jab at their rivals, grab all the eyeballs, but they also maneuvered their way around a critical rule laid down by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) - you can't use the word 'Olympics' if you are not a paying advertiser.


Case 1 - American Express vs VISA

1992 Olympics, Barcelona


While some of the sources quote the '92 Winter Olympics (France) and even the '94 Winter Olympics (Norway) as the events where this ambush took place, stronger evidence points to the fact that it was the 1992 summer olympics held at Barcelona.




VISA, having paid $20 million to sponsor the '92 Olympics, unnecessarily took a dig at its rival American Express (as a part of a long on-going attack since 1986) by making the latter their main talking point in the ads. All of VISA's TV and print ads said that American Express was not accepted anywhere at the Olympics. The tone of the ads was deliberately so designed as to also suggest that AmEx wouldn't be accepted anywhere in Barcelona, which was far from the truth. The only place where an AmEx card wasn't accepted was the ticket counter at the Olympics.


In retaliation, AmEx's advertising agency Chiat/Day came up with a witty campaign where the voice over mentions that to visit the 'sporting event' in Barcelona, Americans should carry a passport. It goes on to add, 'But remember, you don't need a Visa'. Quite cheeky, I must say!


"You need a passport to go to Spain. But you don't need a Visa!"

A survey conducted by a market research firm showed the rousing success of this ambush. After the event, 66% of respondents identified AmEx as the sponsor of the event, when in fact it was VISA who had spent $20 million to grab the official sponsorship rights!


Case 2 - Nike vs Reebok

1996 Olympics, Atlanta


In 1996, Reebok had paid a whooping $50 million to become an official sponsor at the '96 Olympics held at Atlanta. But Nike ran all their efforts into the ground with a series of ambush tactics. To start with, Nike constructed an oversized, 12 storey tall retail outlet overlooking the athletes village. There was no way anyone could escape looking at it. In addition to that, Nike distributed flag outside the athletes village with the famous Nike swoosh on it. And people did wave those at the Olympics, giving Nike a lot of free air time.


But Nike's biggest ambush came in the form of a pair of golden spikes worth $30,000 provided to Michael Johnson. It was understood that Michael would bag gold in the 400 meter running race, and without even using the word 'Gold', Nike was able to associate itself with the Olympic Gold. Given the color and shoe design, all the cameras were on it and it became a talking point in the media. Michael Johnson's victory only amplified it, as he later wore the shoes around his neck for a photo shoot after getting down from the podium. This irked both Reebok and the IOC tremendously, but the damage was already done.


To make matters worse, Nike ran billboard campaigns across Atlanta which read 'You don't win Silver. You lose GOLD'

After the Olympics ended, in a survey conducted by a famous TV channel, 22% of the viewers identified Nike as the official sponsor, as compared to just 16% who identified Reebok despite Reebok actually being the official sponsor.


While marketers have divided opinions on using Ambush Marketing in general, I'd say that all is fair in love, war, and advertising! (Well, as long as it remains covert, and not explicit!)


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