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With Nike's "Ambush Marketing," Olympic Committee Proves It Lost the Spirit of the Games

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I'm going to come out and say it: the 2012 Olympic Games are driven primarily by profit and control and have nothing to do with sports, competition or international unity. This is the only way one can explain the London Game's appalling censorship of free speech, the exorbitant rates it charges anyone who wants to be associated with the Games and the endless stream of marketing messages and hype we've seen from the media thus far.

Take Thursday's article in the New York Times, titled "Brand Police Are on the Prowl for Ambush Marketers at London Games." The article details Nike's newest guerrilla marketing campaign to "ambush" the 2012 Olympic Games and steal some of the spotlight for itself. It turned a run-of-the-mill marketing campaign that Nike usually would have had to PAY for people to see and turned it into front page news. This is endemic to the 2012 Games as a whole, which despite the flowery rhetoric and beautiful imagery are overwhelmingly commercial and controlled by advertisers and marketers.

Consider the Times' piece, it isn't that the events weren't newsworthy, it's that the Times' missed the point. Every word of the article would have been better spent criticizing and articulating the ruthless infringements the London Games have exerted on the free press. What does it say that a sporting event historically defined by fair competition has been given an unquestioned fiat over what anyone can or can't say about the Games? Brands are essentially forbidden from saying or associating themselves with the Olympics -- something that has been commonly owned by Western Civilization since the Greeks -- unless they hand over piles of cash to the Games.

Same goes for a recent controversy tangentially related to a brand I represent, American Apparel. Only last week did reporters finally discover that Ralph Lauren's Team USA uniforms were made in foreign sweatshops. This should have been and would have been obvious to everyone had the media asked basic questions when Ralph Lauren was first named the clothing sponsor. Lauren's cache -- and the Olympic Committee's influence over the press -- was almost enough to keep their shameful secret hidden from everyone and it still would be had activists and politicians not raised hell about it.

In short, marketers and advertisers control the Olympics and the media surrounding it. While the official Olympic committee may have banned Nike from advertising about the Games, it still couldn't stop The New York Times from giving free publicity to Nike's campaign. And that's what is alarming to me about the Games and the press around it, is the way that the press has openly accepted the role of cramming marketing and PR messages down our throat. First, we have David Segal's anticipatory article about a Nike ADVERTISING campaign as though they were a politician announcing their candidacy. We have everyone from Bleacher Report to USA Today jamming Ryan Lochte down our throats as the "next big thing." Sometimes I half suspect that corporations have given these publications a cut of the revenue they hope to make from the ensuing celebrity, in exchange for free publicity.

Considering these advertisers do pay millions of dollars a year to such publications and outlets, my accusation isn't exactly a conspiracy theory. Think about it: Publishers online and off need to fill space. Companies need coverage of their products. Together blogs, marketers, and publicists cannot help but collaborate to meet one anothers' needs and dress up the artificial and unreal as important. Public relations and marketing are something companies do to move product. It is not meaningful. It is not cool. Yet because it is cheap, easy, and lucrative to cover, blogs want to convince you that it is. And we've mostly accepted that, consuming such schlock like it's news. As the CEO of a viral video agency that did $25 million in billing last year once advised me: "Get out there and make your own noise. Advertise your advertising."

This is exactly why Nike did here, and one of the world's most prestigious papers bit, hook line and sinker. I actually don't fault companies for doing this. I have done it myself on behalf of my author clients and on behalf of international fashion brands. What is alarming is that the media has abdicated its role as a filter -- it has stopped blocking these messages from us and instead become merely a channel for them. The media and the public are supposed to be on the same side. The media, when it's functioning properly, protects the public against marketers and their ceaseless attempts to trick people into buying things. I've come to realize that that is not how it is today. Marketers and the media are on the same team, and way too often you are played into watching with rapt attention as we deceive you. Press release and marketing gets dressed up and fed to you as news.

This is precisely what has happened with the Olympics. In 1962, author Daniel Boorstin (later to become our Librarian of Congress) welcomed us to "unreality." Unreality, he said, was a world where marketing messages pass for real news and the system is defenseless against fake, manipulated or unnecessary information. He was a little early. Nike isn't ambushing the London Games. They are ambushing us, by turning what is a standard commercial -- like the many others they spend billions on each year -- and turning it into news. When we breathlessly read news about advertisements, about staged pseudo-events, we are participating in our own deception.

We need to empower the media to say NO to this kind of content. We need to separate marketing messages from content. We need to enforce a clear line between "editorial" and "advertising." "Advertorial" must become the dirty word it once was, again.

Originally, the Olympics were supposed to be about the timeless art of competition, where the best athlete wins. This is the reason is has always had such strict rules about compensation and more recently, about steroids and cheating. Yet marketing has taken over anyway, and London's draconian control of media messaging seems to have actually made things worse. This goes against everyone's interest and it ruins what should be an uncorrupted, pure and inspiring few weeks of the world's greatest athletes going head to head. That's a shame.