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Rule 40: Why Brands Can’t Use the Olympics

Rachel Shaw Social Media

Olympic season is well under way, with a fantastic opening ceremony on Friday to some exhilarating games over the weekend (although we all feel for French athlete Samir Ait Said-ouch).

The Olympics has always been a prime opportunity for brands, especially sports-oriented ones. However, for anyone who has heard of Rule 40, that particular Olympic dream has come to a sharp and disruptive end for any advertising campaigns that did not begin before the start of the games.  

Rule 40 is a by-law by the Olympic Committee which states that ‘no competitor, coach, trainer or official who participates in the games may allow his person, names, pictures of sports performances to be used for advertising purposes during the Olympic Games, without the express consent of the IOC board’.

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The IOC have stated that it is there to ‘preserve the unique nature of the Olympic games by preventing over-commercialisation’. Or, in other words, it protects the ‘official’ sponsors, who have spent millions, by stopping other brands from capitalising. It applies from the 27th of July to the 24th of August, which covers the two weeks of the games as well as the week before they start and a week after the closing ceremony.

Athletes themselves are prevented from certain actions in relation to their non-Olympic sponsors. For example, Michael Phelps can Tweet the following ‘Working hard in the pool tonight-thanks, Under Armour’, but not ‘Training hard for Rio-thanks, Under Armour’. It is no laughing matter for them, athletes can even be stripped of their medals or disqualified if they violate Rule 40.

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So, what does this mean for brands?

When it comes down to it, there is a pretty bleak outlook for non-official brands. For all campaigns, including any social updates, brands cannot use generic terms such as ‘games’, ‘Rio’, ‘gold’ or even ‘challenge’ as their hashtags, nor post certain images of athletes or the games. For the full list and details read the complete Rule 40 here. And unless you have applied way, way in advance, any campaigns are unlikely to get the approval of the IOC now.

Moreover, even if you have a pretty hefty budget to play with, like Under Armour did, and you use Rule 40 loopholes to capitalise on the games, it takes a lot of time (a year in advance minimum) and effort to do so. 

Hence, as a smaller, less well known brand, you are unlikely to want to run a campaign that costs a lot of money before anyone has even qualified and months before the games have even begun, especially if it is not obvious that it is about the Olympics. Realistically, what would be the point?

If brands do still want to get involved without being penalised, sites such as Rule40.com and theriocorrector.com have popped up which let smaller brands download generic ‘Olympic safe’ content to use during the blackout phase. Not exactly what the IOC was aiming for…

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There is, however, always a light at the end of the tunnel. With these restrictions in place, the advertising playing field has drastically changed. Official sponsors themselves are not feeling like they are getting their million’s worth, as brands such as Under-Armour continue to do exceptionally well, with the majority of users not really knowing the difference between official and non-official sponsors anyways. It begs the question of: if Rule 40 will continues, will it be productive for the IOC or eventually start to lose them money? Is limiting the use of Olympic hashtags on social media really the way to draw in more spectators, especially as a huge proportion are now millennials?