A new ambush marketing storm has, inevitably, hit the World Cup, sorry, FIFA World Cup.
A Dutch brewer named Bavaria arranged, via its marketing agency and with the bizarre and inadvertent help of ITV pundit Robbie Earle, for 36 young females to dress up in orange mini dresses for Holland's game against Denmark.
This was, of course, intolerable given that Budweiser is the official beer sponsor (sorry, partner) and the women were quite rightly questioned by officials and police and threatened with arrest. Miscreants would do well to remember that the cells on Robben Island are currently empty.
The culprit, Dutch brewer Bavaria, has got form, indeed it seems to have ambushing in its genes – it appears to be pretending to hail from a highly renowned brewing area of Germany.
Anyway, Bavaria pulled off a similar stunt in Germany in 2006 when it gave away more than 1,000 pairs of Orange lederhosen to Dutch fans before a match against the Ivory Coast. Officious officials (what other sort can you have?) insisted that the fans either removed their pants or missed the game.
Now, if you are on your own, the idea of entering a football stadium in your Y-fronts might seem a little intimidating and you might give the match a miss. But if there are hundreds of you, it’s a sunny day and you’ve had the odd Bavaria (sorry, Budweiser) beforehand, you naturally find the idea of watching a match in your underwear quite appealing.
The outcome of the fiasco in 2006 was that Bavaria (sponsorship payment to FIFA = $0.00) received massive global coverage and most of the public sided with the fans and the errant brewer in viewing the stunt as a bit of harmless fun. Budweiser (payment to FIFA = $40 million per World Cup), which had actually done nothing wrong and was not involved in the incident, was seen, by implication, as a killjoy.
Amusement aside, ambush marketing is a problem for sport. Many sports are kept alive through sponsorship and major international events such as the World Cup and the Olympics simply could not happen without the income generated from sponsorship.
Those cynical of the financial aspect of FIFA’s operations should also look to the massive programme it has for redistributing its income to projects in developing countries where football really can make a difference to people's lives.
If, therefore, you accept sponsorship as a necessity, you also have to accept that ambushing has to be dealt with. There are already numerous legal and practical measures in place for this World Cup that haven’t hit the headlines because they aren’t seen as authoritarian or against the spirit of the event. Poster sites near to the stadia in South Africa were allocated to FIFA sponsors long ago as part of the World Cup hosting agreement. Similarly, non-sponsoring brands cannot, by law, rent plots of land in the host cities to run fan parks. Nike, for example, has successfully bought up poster sites and run fan villages in the past, resulting in a lot of people believing that it is an official sponsor.
Deals have also been done with broadcasters to allow sponsors the option to buy the broadcast sponsorship slots (bumper breaks) that open and close the ad breaks. Viewers in the UK will, for example, perhaps have noticed the brief Hyundai commercials in which cars are seen playing football.
Finally, a small army of lawyers has been policing brand communications around the world to check for any sort of claim to an official association with the World Cup through promotions, adverts and merchandise and any illegal use of trademarks has been halted swiftly.
The PR stunt is, however, arguably the most difficult to deal with. It often involves fans, it often seems like fun and intervention often appears to be heavy handed.
The solution, therefore, is surely just a matter of appropriate response. FIFA would be better served by having a PR expert (not one recruited from BP) at each match to assess the likely impact of any corporate transgression.
Had 36 women in orange mini dresses (among the thousands of Dutch fans also dressed in orange) occasionally been seen on global TV screens and no action been taken – who would have heard of Bavaria? And bear in mind that FIFA has some influence over what appears on the live TV feed – a word in the producer’s ear could quickly ensure that a section of the crowd is not featured.
Who would be thinking what killjoys FIFA are? Who would be thinking that the hand of Budweiser is behind all of this? The whole episode, as in 2006, could have passed off without incident and Bavaria would be left looking for another outlet for its creative marketing.
Had Bavaria, however, arranged for a group of fans or agency staff to bring in big beer branded flags, or to wear, en masse, T-shirts with a Bavaria logo, a PR expert at the stadium could quickly assess the situation as very different and put a stop to it.
There would be no global sniggering at FIFA’s misfortune, no talk of over-commercialisation and no suggestions of excessive intervention. The public would see Bavaria as the guilty party, trying to commercialise the World Cup for its own gain and the only own goal in the match would have been credited to Denmark’s Daniel Agger in the 46th minute.