Ambush marketing: when sponsors cry “foul”

Author:Kathryn Park
Position:Strategic Trademark Consulting, formerly General Counsel for Brand Management, GE, Connecticut, United States

Ads bombard us daily – television, billboards, search engines and websites, apps, print and radio. Brands seek ways to break through this noise, to create a buzz and drive consumer demand for their products. In this pursuit, advertisers sometimes invest in sponsoring a big event, a famous individual or a team to leverage fans’ excitement to promote the sponsor’s brand. Events like the Olympic... (see full summary)


These marketing investments are imperiled when the sponsor’s event-related advertising is ambushed by a competitor’s advertising that makes that same association, even though not an official sponsor.

Direct ambushes versus indirect ambushes

The easy cases to spot are direct ambushes – ones in which the actual trademarks of the event organizer are used to create the false impression that they are associated with an event; for example, if the use is of the distinctive symbol comprising five interlocking rings of the International Olympic Committee.

Events like the Olympic Games, the World Cup and the Super Bowl, to name a few, attract corporate sponsors that pay large sums, often in the hundreds of millions of dollars, to gain greater exposure for their brands.

The more difficult cases are indirect ambushes, ones in which the ambush marketer capitalizes on the event without misuse of the event’s trademarks or without making a direct false claim of affiliation with the event. A myriad of approaches can accomplish this, from buying advertising space near the event, branding transportation to the venue, featuring individuals participating in the event, and using a color scheme and words that imply the event, to name a few.

Indirect ambush marketing is best illustrated by examples. During the London 2012 Olympic Games, Nike launched the Find Your Greatness campaign featuring regular individuals doing all manner of sports, filmed in locations called London, other than London, England – for example, London, Nigeria. In another example, Puma, which sponsors Usain Bolt, flooded the media with images of the athlete holding his golden Puma shoes after he won gold medals in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and filled social media with the post “When you are @Usain Bolt, you are #ForeverFaster,” which tied Usain Bolt’s gold medal performance with Puma’s Forever Faster slogan. These examples did not encroach upon any sponsor rights, notwithstanding the obvious implicit connection to the Olympic Games.

During the Winter Olympic Games in 2018 in PyeongChang, SK Telecom created a series of three broadcast ads using two South Korean Olympic athletes and the phrases “See you in PyeongChang” and “See you in 5G Korea”. Although the advertisements appeared carefully crafted not to make a direct association between SK Telecom’s services and the Olympic Games, the Korean Intellectual Property Office found that the campaign violated the rights of the official sponsor, KT...

To continue reading