07/23/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Triumph of the Normal: Overwhelming Olympic Imagery Swamps Dissonant Voices

There can and will be surprises ahead, but the imminence of the Games means the inundation of positive imagery has started. Sitting in a hotel room in Abuja, Nigeria, watching Al Jazeera English, there was story after story about heroic kids coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, training and getting ready for Beijing. Children in Cuba are learning to box, North Africans are preparing for judo, the standard stories of noble efforts are the Olympic tales. The U.S. woman's volleyball team has a coach from China -- one of those double whammy human interest stories.

Even the old critical narratives are getting a fresh spin: algae are being removed from the lake where the sailing competition is taking place. The architecture is getting more favorable reviews. My colleague at Annenberg, Joe Turow, has been referring accounts of the bonanza of advertising narratives, hardly critical of China, that are now about to appear globally. For example, Advertising Age reports that Coca Cola's giant TV Campaign, themed "Live Olympic on the Coke Side of Life," highlights China bringing aspects of Chinese culture to more than 50 national markets.

According to the piece by Natalie Zmuda in Advertising Age, "Coke Unleashes Olympic Blitz," this is

a gamble, some might say, as critics around the world disparage China's track record on human rights and environmental issues. But Coca-Cola is standing firm, saying it never considered adjusting or scaling back its program and is not concerned about negative consumer feedback.

"As we get closer to the games, the consumer excitement is much more positive than we would have thought," said Kevin Tressler, director-worldwide sports and entertainment marketing at the marketer.

Indeed, China seems to be grabbing fewer negative headlines. "The message tends to get more positive and some of the politics tend to fall away as the competition itself and the story lines that develop therein come to life," said Kevin Adler, president of Engage Marketing, a Chicago-based sports-marketing firm.

Here are two examples of Coke ads cited in the article to illustrate how Coca Cola connects China benevolently to other cultures, using the Olympics as a bridge. One is called "Unity" and in it "basketball stars Yao Ming and LeBron James show off cultural icons from their respective countries. In Mr. Yao's case, that includes dragons and traditional fans, while Mr. James touts break dancing and cowboys.'"

The ad ends with both stars reaching for a Coke, one in Mandarin packaging and one in English. According to Tressler (the marketing director), "This is our own interesting way of East meeting West and bringing the world together... [Mr. Yao and Mr. James] are so different, but the one thing they're united on is a Coke."

In "Bird's Nest Stadium," Advertising Age reports, animated birds fly around the world "snagging straws from unsuspecting people, often from their Coke bottles. The birds build what is ultimately revealed as a look-alike version of the Beijing National Stadium, which has been dubbed the Bird's Nest."

To understand the tyranny of the normal, and the way images are being mobilized, read this Wall Street Journal story, gently labeled "Amnesty Spot Creates Headache for Ad Shop." TBWA Worldwide, part of the global advertising giant Omnicom Group, is the agency for Adidas, and is tied to China in a thousand interesting ways.

Little known to the agency's leaders, a creative soul in its Paris office had volunteered to do public service campaigns for Amnesty International. While the Beijing office was pumping out stories linking Adidas to Chinese pride,

the agency's Paris office was working on another ad campaign on behalf of Amnesty International that showed Chinese athletes being tortured by Chinese authorities. In one of the print ads, a person has been attached to a target normally used in the shooting competition at the Games. At the bottom, it says, "After the Olympic Games, the fight for human rights must go on."

Chinese bloggers, spurred by a report in state-run media of the Amnesty campaign last week, are now calling for a boycott of all TBWA ads, among other measures.

"I suggest that all Chinese employees in TBWA resign from this company," wrote one blogger on

Amnesty agreed quickly to spike the ads and contrition is manifest in Beijing. Meanwhile, the Paris Amnesty Ad won a bronze award at Cannes. The message there is not the same as it is in Olympic land.