Sochi 2014: Propaganda, Olympic principles and social media

Published 03 February 2014 | Authored by: Nick White

Sochi is upon us and reading Mark James and Guy Osborn's article referring to the LGBT protests against Russia’s homosexual propaganda laws got me thinking about some other occasions when protesters, campaigners and agitators have targeted major sports events.

The history of high profile sporting competitions being used as platforms for political or social statements is a markedly chequered one. Noble causes such as the anti-apartheid movement in the 1970s and 1980s and, more recently, LGBT rights have received important publicity in this way. But we have also seen nefarious crimes such as the assassination of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich or the IRA Bomb threat against the Grand National in 1997 placing their perpetrators’ “causes” in the public eye.

Of course, event organisers and their sponsors are tightly bound together and when sporting events take on a political or social significance, sponsors often have to brace themselves. McDonald's #CheersToSochi twitter campaign was hijacked by protesters on behalf of the LBGT community, not long after stories broke of Russian Olympic security officials cracking down harshly on demonstrators. Coca-Cola is of course another top level Oympic sponsor and some of its advertisements have also been subject to sardonic re-edits by campaigners.

Where there are sponsors, there are ambushers, and the chance to be associated with popular and important social statements often draws non-sponsor brands into the fray. Paddy Power are arch exponents of ambushing and their 2013 "rainbow laces" campaign in support of gay footballers was another in a line of clever marketing ploys. Similarly, albeit with a slightly more "serious" tone, American Apparel are producing merchandise in support of the Principle 6 movement, which as Messrs James and Osborn wrote in their article, keeps the spotlight on Russia homosexual propaganda laws by quoting from the IOC's Principle 6: "Sport does not discriminate on grounds of race, religion, gender or OTHERWISE".

Of course, we now have social media as part of the mix. One only has to look at the Arab Spring as a most striking example of how social has placed fresh power in the hands of the protester. The sponsors of major global sporting events, who tend to be household names and to be easily accessible, are obvious targets. With the potential for overwhelming online protests enabled by "social", expect some event sponsors to be looking with increasing jealousy at the ambushers on the other side.

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About the Author

Nick White

Nick White

Nick has considerable experience and expertise in IP, broadcasting, social and digital media, sponsorship, defamation / privacy, sports disputes and sports regulatory matters.

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