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2016 Olympics: Learning From the Best and Worst of Olympics Marketing


The 2016 Olympics are upon us.

Everyone gets pumped for the Olympics. They're the symbol of nations coming together in the spirit of friendly competition. They ask us to put aside our differences, to watch the most absolutely incredible and terrifying human beings perform awesome feats of strength and agility.

They're also a huge global marketing opportunity. With the world watching, marketing can make or break a business. The Olympics are probably the worst time for brands to flub up - but that's exactly what happens. 

But! Although these brands may crash and burn, they become important marketing lessons for all of us. 

Let's take a quick look at some of the best Olympic marketing campaigns. Then, we'll get to the good stuff: Olympic history's worst of the worst, and what we can learn from it.

Olympics Marketing All-Stars

As of writing this post, the games haven't started yet. But that doesn't mean companies are slacking on their Olympics-themed advertising. We have some great ads this year, plus we'll look at some oldies-but-goodies!

1.  2016 - Proctor & Gamble

Proctor & Gamble is aiming right for our squishy, unprotected emotions this year. Their ad "Thank You, Mom" is a shout-out to moms (of the Olympic athletes and otherwise).


This is a masterful targeting tactic from P&G. The spotlight is on the athletes during the games, and most of the ads and coverage will be on the athletes and the games. Taking a moment to honor the athletes' biggest supporters appeals to our lizard brains and our love for our own mothers. It's powerful. 

By the way, have you talked to your mother lately?

2.  2016 - Under Armour

Under Armour starts strong with its ad starring Michael Phelps. The ad is powerful, relatable, and beautiful. It's striking. It's provocative. It's an entire story in 30 seconds. If you remember nothing else from this video, think about how the story is presented. 

How do they provoke emotion? How do they tell the story without telling the story? How can you tune in with your own audience's emotions?

3.  2000 - Westpac

The Olympics of 2000 were held in Sydney, Australia. To show support for the home team, Australian bank Westpac put together a montage of Olympians' family members attempting their sports. It's funny, adorable, and leaves you with a nice warm feeling in your stomach:

Warm fuzzies are one of the powerful feelings you can connect to your brand. You might remember Budweiser using the same tactic - they've been releasing a series of heartwarming ads every Superbowl. They're about a guy, a horse, and a puppy. Audience: hooked.

4.  1998 - IBM

IBM was a thought leader in 1998. A trailblazer. Their ad "We Won" is so simple, yet shows what the still-new Internet could do for regular folks. And, more importantly, what it would be able to do in the future. 

When you create your own marketing campaigns, think about what your product or service means to the everyday person. What benefits do they receive? How would their life be different with your product? IBM provides a great example, executed flawlessly.  

The Worst Olympics Marketing Ideas Ever

We gave you some of the best of the best... now let's talk about the nosedives in Olympics advertising. 

5.  2012 - London Olympics

Yup, the Olympics itself makes the list of Worst Olympic Marketing Campaigns Ever. Why? Because one of their primary advertisements could cause seizures for tens of thousands of people in London alone. Here's the video:

Note to advertisers: don't make commercials that can land your viewers in the hospital. 

6.  1992 - Reebok

For the '92 Olympics in Barcelona, Reebok jumped the gun.

Their campaign involved huge backing and promotion of two American athletes, Dan (O'Brien) and Dave (Johnson). They began this campaign months before the games took place - before the Olympic athletes were chosen. Dan and Dave were both strong athletes for the games, and Reebok took a big gamble on them. The idea was that both athletes would promote Reebok shoes, and at least one of them would win a medal.

However, embarrassingly, Dan failed to even qualify for the games. Reebok attempted to cover the damage with glitter in the form of another ad that showed Dan cheering Dave on. Somehow, it lacked the luster of the original campaign. To add insult to injury, Dave only barely won a bronze medal in his sport. Reebok held its head in shame.

While Dan did eventually win a gold medal in the '96 Summer Olympics, the damage had been done. We all learned a harsh lesson that day: don't count your freaking chickens before they hatch. Seriously, whose idea was that?

7.  2004 - The Golden Palace

If you've heard of the Golden Palace, it's probably because of the shenanigans they pull during the Olympics. 

The Golden Palace is an online casino based out of Malta. They're known for being the class clown in a few different ways - most notably, for their streaking-style ambush advertising at the Olympic games. 

In 2004, a man disrupted the games by leaping naked into a pool. He had the Golden Palace logo tattooed on his stomach. Talk about interruptive advertising. (If you're curious, you can watch the video here.) 

The Golden Palace is also noted for being the winning bidder ($28,000) in the auction for the "Virgin Mary Toast" back in 2004.

8.  1984 - McDonald's


McDonald's made a promise in 1984. Every time a US athlete won a medal, customers got free food. This sounds like a decent marketing campaign, right? For the customers, it's awesome! For the company, not so much.

(In case you were wondering, Bronze got a drink, Silver got fries, and Gold got a Big Mac.) 

McD's knew they were gambling on the success of US athletes. They thought they had the odds figured out, though - they used the 1976 games as a reference for 1984's approximate winnings. However, they failed to take three important things into account: 

  1. The '76 games were the US's most recent Summer Olympics due to boycotting Russia in 1980. The US won 94 total medals at the '76 games.
  2. The only countries who won more medals than the US in '76 were East Germany and the Soviet Union. 
  3. The Soviet Union was boycotting America for the 1984 games, and thus they and East Germany would not be in attendance.

This led to a foreseeable conclusion: the US dominated the 1984 games, taking home 174 medals in total. Great news for America, not so great for McDonald's.

All in all, the company shelled out double the expected amount of free food. Marketing lesson: be careful what you promise to give away for free. 

Do you have a favorite Olympics ad flop?

Let us know in the comments! Or, share your favorite GREAT Olympics commercial!

As for our favorites above, what can we learn for our own marketing campaigns?

  1. Pull the heartstrings. Hard.
  2. Make your materials dynamic and engaging.
  3. Tell a story.
  4. Be a trailblazer.
  5. Don't give people seizures.
  6. Don't spend your money before you have all the facts.
  7. Don't disrupt your audience with unwanted imagery.
  8. If you're going to make a big bet, analyze all factors carefully.

Every failure is a learning experience - even if the failure isn't ours. Take a careful look at both the best AND the worst for everything you do in marketing. You'll learn how to do it right and, more importantly, how not to do it wrong.

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