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A Brief History of Marketing & Advertising in the Olympic Games

TEGNA Marketing | July 19, 2020

The role of marketing and advertising has grown since the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. From the introduction of broadcasting to the hope that comes with the upcoming Olympic Games, here’s what you need to know.

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  • Summer Olympics

A Brief History of Marketing & Advertising in the Olympic Games

TEGNA Marketing | July 19, 2020

The role of marketing and advertising has grown since the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. From the introduction of broadcasting to the hope that comes with the upcoming Olympic Games, here’s what you need to know.

“Compete with the immortals.” Taken from a stirring, motivational speech given to Olympic athletes just before they took to the competition? Not exactly. These are the words of advertising icon David Ogilvy. Throughout his life and career, Ogilvy implored colleagues, rivals, anyone he met, to constantly push themselves toward greater excellence and achievement.

How fitting that over the years, the advertising industry has trained like Olympic athletes to achieve creative gold during the Olympic Games. Addressing the emotional rollercoaster that occurs during a pandemic, brands are stepping into the conversation in a bold and unforgettable way to inspire, comfort, and engage their audiences.

The Olympics have always been a showcase for campaigns with emotional punch and impact. As we mark one year to the start of Tokyo 2020, let’s look back at some of the most unforgettable Olympic marketing moments.

Satellite Broadcasting Begins in Tokyo in 1964

Tracing the growth of Olympic ad campaigns runs directly parallel to the expansion of media carriage and coverage. In fact, it was in 1964, the last time the Olympics were held in Tokyo, that satellite broadcasting was utilized for the first time. The satellites allowed images to be transmitted overseas and attracted more than 250 companies as global marketing partners.

Olympic Official Products Become the Norm in the 70s

“Official” products started to become more prevalent. Product categories far removed from the actual action on the field were designated as “official,” such as Texaco’s Havoline Motor Oil for the 1972 Munich Summer Games. Their spot used runners competing in a relay race with cans of oil rather than batons. And there’s Brim, “the official coffee of the 1976 Summer Olympics,” portraying a fictional coffee booth prepping for the onslaught of fans thirsty for their favorite brew.

Global Audiences Grow in the 80s 

Entering the 1980s, viewer counts were getting higher every year. More than 2.5 billion people tuned into the 1984 Los Angeles Games with TV and radio broadcasting rights acquired by 156 countries. Advertising became more sophisticated and nuanced, bundling its messaging with emerging star athletes and broader themes of family, patriotism, and dedication.

The granddaddies of the tearjerker spot, Anheuser Busch, created a Michelob ad for the 1988 Olympics imaging the hush that takes over a crowded, noisy bar as patrons watch their country’s athletes ascend the platform to take gold.

The Largest Broadcast Audience to Date

The Atlanta Games in 1996 would usher in a whole new age for the Olympics and its marketing and advertising juggernaut. The sporting spectacle was primarily financed with private funds for the first time, opening the floodgates to even greater partnerships. Now 214 countries were able to view the games.

When all was said and done, Nielsen counted 39.7 million viewers – the largest U.S. TV audience ever – for the 1996 Summer Games opening ceremonies.

The New Millenium Sees New Brand/Athlete Relationships 

At the Sydney 2000 Games, a lanky, determined kid from Baltimore would get into the water and the worlds of Olympic competition and Olympic advertising would never be the same. Michael Phelps did not medal in Sydney, but fans and marketers took notice and by Athens 2004 he was shattering records and accumulating hardware at a dizzying pace.

Visa famously cast Phelps just doing his normal practice laps as he swims the length of the world from the Acropolis in Athens all the way to Lady Liberty in New York Harbor. Phelps, of course, would go on to more Games, more medals, more record books, and more ads, including an Under Armour spot in 2016 that holds the record for most views online ever.

In 2008 Visa returned with its “Go World” series, focusing on competitors from around the globe. In one standout ad voiced by Morgan Freeman, they memorably redefined the idea of “a winner” by sharing the story of UK runner Derek Redmond, who, at the 1992 Barcelona Games, tore his hamstring in the 400-meter semi-final. He continued the race limping and, with assistance from his father, made it to the finish line as the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

Marketing Becomes as Meaningful as the Games Themselves 

The heart-tugging hat trick must go to Proctor & Gamble (P&G). The first “Thank you, Mom” was in 2010 and P&G used it for the next several Olympic Games through PyeongChang in 2018. The spots delved deeply into the backgrounds of the athletes, showcasing their most prized asset – Mom.

As their agency, Wieden + Kennedy explained, “At first blush, P&G doesn’t have an obvious connection with the Olympics. But every Olympic athlete has, or had, a mom. And P&G loves moms. We didn’t make the athletes our heroes; we celebrated their moms.”

Tokyo Games Provide Hope to the World Amid a Pandemic  

As we look forward to the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Games, brands continue to find meaningful ways to capture the full spectrum of what this unique competition holds and means for athletes and spectators around the world. From tears to laughter, gimmicks to gags, special effects wizardry to down-to-earth storytelling, Olympic ads will always stand out –  just like the games themselves.

What is Your Game Plan for the Tokyo Olympic Games?

At a time when the world needs hope and unity more than ever, the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo present brands with a unique opportunity to use their platform, voice, and creative to deliver powerful messaging that inspires the masses. Using memorable Olympic moments can help brands deliver these messages in a meaningful way.

Get connected with TEGNA’s Power of Inspiration team to get started on a gold medal campaign of your own. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and connect with us on LinkedIn.

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