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#Sport: The digital battle between sponsors, rights holders and ambush marketers

Hashtag text on wooden blocks on top of wooden table
Thursday, 13 July 2017 By Dan Smith

Digital media has transformed marketing, with global online advertising revenues predicted to exceed US$260 billion by 2020[1]. But the popularity of mobile, social media and digital media marketing generally has also opened up new fronts in the battle between rights-holders and ambush marketers.  And, in social media in particular, some of the most memorable advertising over recent Olympics, World Cups and other major sporting events, has often seemed to originate from unofficial sources.

What do we remember now from the last FIFA World Cup – the official sponsor campaigns or Snickers' response to Luis Suarez biting Giorgio Chiellini?[2]

In response to these new threats, rights-holders have looked to take steps to preserve the value in their official sponsorship packages.  The US Olympic Committee, in advance of Rio 2016, went so far as to warn non-sponsors, in correspondence, that they could not use #Rio2016 or #Team USA, share or retweet anything from official Olympic pages or reference any Olympic results. But it's questionable how effective such threats are, certainly when they appear to extend far beyond the legal recourse which is actually available.

So is it the case that official sponsors will, in practice, have to share the social media spotlight with their "unofficial" competitors?  And will that have a knock-on effect on the value rights-holders are able to recoup from their official sponsorship packages?  This article examines the contemporary battle lines between ambush marketers, rights holders and the law in the context of social media.  Specifically, it looks at:

  • How does the law combat ambush marketing in social media?

  • The use of intellectual property rights

  • Passing off, unfair competition, misleading advertising

  • Specific legislation for major events

  • Control over athletes

  • The practical difficulties of prevention and enforcement

  • Is the battle against ambush marketing in social media being lost? And what can rights holders do to regain the upper hand?

  • The future of ambush marketing

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Written by

Dan Smith

Dan Smith

Dan is Director, Head of Advertising Law at Gowling WLG. 

Dan has particular expertise in digital media, advising on social media campaigns, app development, contracts and rights management in the increasingly complex digital landscape and emerging issues such as those associated with native advertising, ad blocking, vlogging and live streaming via apps such as Periscope.

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