A New Low for Olympic Commercialism: Tattoo Advertising

The International Olympics Committee is one of the biggest, most aggressive marketers of the Olympic Brand.  It should come as no surprise that athletes want a piece of the action for themselves.  American runner Nick Symmonds has shown his appreciation for the true Olympic spirit by auctioning off a corporate sponsorship on his left shoulder. 

Hanson Dodge Creative, an advertising and design agency in Milwaukee, won the right to pay Symmonds $11,000 to tattoo its Twitter hashtag on his left shoulder.  As a piece by Stewart Elliot in the New York Times assures us, it’s only a temporary tattoo – but it will be there for the duration of the Olympic Games and 2012. 

The Olympics once prided itself on honoring amateurism in athletics – a standard that was often controversial on the margins because it was hard to enforce.  Everyone needs to earn a livelihood somehow, and the eastern bloc countries for years had a form of state-sponsored professionalism of athletes.  That said, is it an emancipation for athletes to be selling their bodies as a vehicle for corporate tattoos?  Talk about “branding”!

Hanson Dodge bought the "tattoo rights" before Nick Symmonds won a berth on the US Olympic team.  After he made Team USA, it meant that Hanson Dodge would now get far more public exposure for its $11,000 than originally anticipated.  Symmonds proudly noted, “You’re never going to find a better cpm.”

Yes, athletes have become experts on advertising.  A “cpm” is a trade term for “cost per thousand,” or the cost that advertisers pay TV, radio or newspaper outlets to reach a thousand consumers.  One might say that Symmonds is a perfect representative for Team USA:  sell, sell sell! 

There is something very sad about the Olympics becoming little more than a strike-it-rich business opportunity.  Symmonds is unapologetic.  When he finished first in a race in June, he stuck out his tongue in defiance, and said:  “My brand identity is to treat every day like it's your last, live life to the fullest.”  Living life to the fullest apparently means acting like a boor and leveraging the cash value of Brand Symmonds.

Strangely enough, I think Symmonds has a legitimate beef against the IOC.  Why should the IOC be allowed to monopolize all public references to the Olympics, however indirect, and interfere with how athletes’ blog posts and cell phone interviews?  The IOC has gone after many London businesses that make references to “the Games” or in other ways allude to the Olympic trademarks.  Athletes are on notice, too, that they cannot diminish the commercial value of the Olympics brand.  During a “blackout period” from July 18 to August 18, Olympic athletes cannot appear in ads unless they are produced by official Olympic sponsors, who don't want their Olympic affiliation watered down. 

At previous Olympics, athletes have been prohibited from blogging or tweeting about the games lest they infringe upon the exclusive broadcasting rights sold to TV networks.  To avoid breaking Olympic rules, Symmonds wears a patch of white tape over his tattoo during races, ironically calling greater attention to the space.

So the Olympics has come to this:  a cultural lockdown on public spaces, athletes and electronic communications lest it infringes upon IOC trademarks and sponsorship agreements.  Maximizing revenues for Brand Olympics is the top priority, after all.

I found myself nodding in sympathy with Symmonds when he said, “The biggest thing that rubs me the wrong way is that governing bodies want to control the space I feel I should control.  There ought to be an open discussion'' of the issue, he said.  Indeed.  But does that mean that corporate tattoos and logos should be plastered all over athletes as if they were NASCAR racers?  What's the upside of the Olympics becoming a garish orgy of commercialism?  

Alas, that Rubicon was crossed in 1984 when the Los Angeles Olympics opened the floodgates to corporate sponsorships, raising an astonishing $225 million.  The 2012 London Olympics are expected to ultimately cost $15 billion to produce.  That’s a lot of monetizing of cultural spaces, TV airtime and Twitter feeds that needs to be achieved.  It also helps explain why almost anything having to do with the Olympics seems to have some commercial motive attached to it.  We mustn't let our mental spaces go unbranded and under-leveraged!  

I applaud the spirit of many individual Olympians and the struggles they’ve endured to develop their talents.  But the explosion of corporate marketing associated with the games is a tawdry way of honoring real athletic achievement.  ("Congratulations, you’re the fastest runner on earth.  You get to make a Coca-Cola ad!")  The 2012 games have not even begun and I feel that they deserve to implode under the weight of their own greed, authoritarianism and tacky commercialism.