McDonald’s Guerilla Marketing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games

 

citi field not so clean venue
The home field of my New York Mets, CitiField, displays over 20 sponsors in this particular view. You wouldn’t see any ads in an Olympics venue.

For the International Olympic Committee, the “Clean Venue” policy has been inviolate. No advertisements or hint of commerce is allowed to be seen on or within the Olympic stadium. Not even the top global sponsors are allowed to show their logos in the stadium despite paying millions to market using the Olympic brand. They do so, somewhat ironically, because the Olympic brand, with the clean venue as a symbol, represents ideals beyond consumerism.

Olympic turnaroundAs Steve Jones of head of Coca Cola’s Marketing in the 1990s put it, “A clean field of play is an Olympic equity. One of your core assets. The field of play is an important branding space that you own. Own every inch of it! Sharing your branding space dilutes the Olympic brand. Don’t compromise your greatest opportunity to build brand power. There is no valid loss of revenue argument when the risk is loss of brand equity.”

Thus, the IOC aggressively protects the Olympic brand, and can at times seem obsessive. Michael Payne, author of the great sports marketing book, Olympic Turnaround, wrote about how McDonalds, a TOP Olympic sponsor, perhaps somewhat intentionally, snuck their logo into the eyesight of thousands, if not millions, during the Opening Ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games. Payne, who was a member of the IOC’s marketing team, got a phone call just as the ceremonies were under way.

“Have you seen the broadcast image of the athletes coming over the ramp?” screamed the brand protection manager. “What are we supposed to do about the McDonald’s sign?”

I ran around the stadium to see the problem myself. There, as the athletes marched over the ramp, in the distance was a large elevated McDonald’s neon sign. It provided a perfect backdrop for each nation as they came into the stadium. The sign might have been in the distance, located by the temporary McDonald’s restaurant at the Olympic Park, but on television it looked like it was attached to the main stadium. The sign had to be switched off – and fast.

The McDonald’s restaurant was near the Olympic sponsor hospitality village. I called the IOC manager at the village, and told her to get over to the McDonald’s restaurant and find someone to turn off the lights. She got to the restaurant, by the time the athlete parade had reached the letter c, and Cambodia was stumbling down the ramp. She found it closed and locked up. Understandably, all members of staff were in the stadium watching the ceremonies.

“Then break in,” I yelled to the IOC manager – by now we were up to Denmark in the athletes’ parade, and there was no way for the television cameras to avoid the neon advertising sign. “They will arrest me”, she pleaded.

“They will arrest all of us if we do not get that sign switched off now.” so an IOC manager proceeded to break into a partner’s restaurant to get their sign switched off.”

There was a break in, the logo went dark, and the IOC apologized to McDonald’s for the break in, although it’s unclear how the lights of the logo were left on.

Now, I’m sure this happened. But I have looked closely at the video of the 1996 opening ceremonies in Atlanta, and I just don’t see the McDonald’s sign. Admittedly, this youtube is not a high resolution video.

Fortunately, i was saved by a reader who provided me with a photo of the shining Mickey D logo. Thank you tylerkochman!

McDonalds at 1996 Atlanta Games
Click on photo to go to source, and see photo 45 in the gallery.