A Minute With...

Michael Giardina, expert on sports advertising

2/10/2010  8:00 am

The Super Bowl of advertising is behind us and the Olympics of advertising and brand promotion have begun. The Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, skate into view Feb. 12-28. Advertising professor Michael Giardina once worked in professional sports, and has focused on the intersection of sports, culture and advertising in his research, including in his book “Sporting Pedagogies: Performing Culture & Identity in the Global Arena.” He was interviewed by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

What motivates companies to advertise in the Super Bowl and the Olympics? What’s different about advertisers’ approach to each event and what they’re trying to accomplish?

image of professor michael giardinaWell, we’re obviously talking about two of the premier sporting events in the world, each of which generates massive media attention and interest that go beyond just simply that of sports fans.

The 2010 Super Bowl was the biggest event in U.S. television history, with an estimated 106.5 million viewers, edging out the previous record-holder, the 1983 finale of "M*A*S*H." The 2008 and 2009 Super Bowls drew nearly 100 million viewers each, making them the third and fourth biggest events. There is just no other annual event that has that kind of guaranteed audience, especially one in which the advertising itself has become such an iconic part of the viewing experience, where many people will literally be talking about the ads just as much as the game. So we see advertisers using the Super Bowl as a platform to leverage both the inherent prestige of the game along with its enormous, diverse viewing audience so as to make a big splash in the marketplace. Apple’s “1984” ad is perhaps the most famous example, but classic ads such as Coca-Cola’s “Mean Joe Greene” ad in 1980, the legendary McDonald’s campaign featuring basketball stars Michael Jordan and Larry Bird playing for a Big Mac in 1993, and the dot-com commercials of 2000 are all associated with the Super Bowl.

The Olympics is a bit of a different animal, though, because you have a two-week period of intense, sustained coverage on an event that is widely celebrated as a beacon of values such as sportsmanship, togetherness, international peace, and hope for the future. A lot of the major ads we will see, especially those from official Olympic Partners like VISA (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjzcMHN13e8) and Coca-Cola (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vYFIufNoBo), explicitly reflect these themes, and show a clear articulation between the brand and the games. In other words, there’s a much more direct integration of a particular brand with the Olympics and its attendant themes.

When did corporate sponsorship become such a big part of the Olympic Games, and why?

That began with the 1984 summer games in Los Angeles, which were awarded just two years after the 1976 games in Montreal. Those games had incurred more than a billion dollars in debt due to cost overruns in venue construction, infrastructure and security, and so potential host cities were wary of taking on that kind of financial burden. Rather than rely primarily on public financing to build new venues, Los Angeles used already existing stadia, and turned to private financing and corporate sponsors such as McDonald’s to fund much of what, at the time, was the most commodified Olympics ever. In fact, because of the heavy commercial presence of McDonald’s, the ’84 games are often referred to as the “Hamburger Olympics.”

With the heavy corporate involvement, why are host communities usually still stuck with billions in debt?

In some respects, it’s an issue of heightened expectations and fantastic spending brushing up against economic realities and all of the ancillary construction that takes place. Take Vancouver. The original cost estimate was in the neighborhood of $660 million just a few years ago, and which has ballooned to about $1.5 billion. But The Vancouver Sun reported that if you include related costs, such as the $1 billion Sea-to-Sky Highway improvements,  $2 billion for the new rapid transit system in Vancouver, $900 million for security, etc., you’re looking at a massive outlay of funds in the neighborhood of $6 billion, which dwarfs any amount brought in by private or corporate funding. These latter costs aren’t generally considered part of the actual running of the Olympics, but it is unlikely that Vancouver would have won the bid in the first place without such proposed infrastructural improvements.

If there’s such a downside, why is there so much competition to host the Olympics?

National and civic pride and prestige are powerful things, especially when they have become such highly marketable quantities on the global stage. Let’s not forget, President Obama himself went to the International Olympic Committee meetings in Copenhagen last year to lobby for Chicago’s 2016 bid; it would have been considered a major coup for the administration had he been successful. The media coverage of Chicago being awarded the games to be held in the president’s adoptive hometown would have been priceless, and it would have generated considerable buzz about the games itself.

In the lead-up to Chicago’s failed bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics, we saw significant resistance within the community, and some news reports have suggested considerable unhappiness about the games in Vancouver. Is this part of a trend? If so, what should the Olympics be doing differently to address it?

You’re quite right about the backlash. Vancouver 2010 is already being called by some the “Bailout Games,” due to the necessary influx of additional provincial and federal funds, which is seen by many as effectively a transfer of wealth from the public to private sector. More generally, I would say that, yes, some level of backlash to hosting the games is becoming a growing trend, especially at the local level, among people who will be most directly affected by the games.  I think potential host cities need to be honest about the long-term feasibility of their bids in the first place, the actual cultural and economic impact hosting the games will have on their city, state or region, and acknowledge that those who might oppose such bids have legitimate reasons for doing so.

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