Olympic-themed ads can blur line between salesmanship, competition
Posted: Friday August 20, 2004 4:34AM; Updated: Friday August 20, 2004 4:34AM
NEW YORK (AP) -- So many advertisers are running Olympic-themed commercials during NBC's broadcasts of the Athens Games that it's sometimes hard to tell when the hawking ends and the competition begins.
During Tuesday night's telecast, American swimmer Michael Phelps slips his cell phone to a fellow competitor stuck with no reception.
"Dude, you're going to hurt yourself," Phelps says with a wide smile. "Here. Try mine."
About 30 minutes later, Phelps dives into the water in the service of a credit card company, for a mythical swim halfway around the world. The punch line? It's only his first lap.
Oh, and smack between the two commercials, NBC aired a tape of Phelps winning his second gold medal of the games, in the 200-meter butterfly race.
Both Phelps ads have aired repeatedly. During the Visa commercial Tuesday, NBC allowed the narrator to pipe in with a congratulations to the swimmer for his gold medal.
In other ads, Ronald McDonald has appeared as a synchronized swimmer. Allstate shows a weightlifter dropping a barbell that crashes into a just-parked car. Samsung commercials compare the form of a cell phone to that of an athlete, and Home Depot takes the inspirational approach: "The moment you tell yourself you can do it, you can."
And on and on.
Clearly, associating a product with athletic glory and trying to fit seamlessly into a broadcast works. None of these companies spend money idly.
"If they're able to congratulate someone for winning a gold medal and he's the spokesman for their company, I don't think it detracts from their ads at all," said Steve Sternberg, an analyst for the ad buying firm Magna Global. "I think it fits in very well."
Bob Wright, NBC Universal chairman and chief executive, clearly agrees. The Olympics are shaping up as a ratings winner, expected to earn NBC about $50 million in profits.
The Olympics are doing so well that the network has begun selling advertising time initially held back for "make-goods." In Sydney, advertisers were given extra free commercial time to make up for poorer-than-expected ratings.
"The ads are very compatible," Wright said, "and I think it increases the enjoyment of the viewers."
But Gary Ruskin, who runs Commercial Alert, an advocacy group concerned about commercialism in the media, said the Olympic-themed advertising may have a cumulative, unfortunate effect.
"I think it cheapens the meaning of sports and the meaning of the Olympics," he said. "It turns it into one great, giant sell-fest. Sports are a lot more meaningful than hawking Coca-Cola. Sports are about aspiring for something great."
One ad that has danced across the line of good taste is NBC's offer, on its Web site, to sell replicas of clothing worn by the American athletes during last week's opening ceremony.
There are times when the athletes and salesmanship blur together. And it provides Phelps with something to ponder about his future: Will he be remembered most as a great Olympic champion, or as a cell phone salesman?