Pantsgate: clearer answers are needed when dealing with ambush marketing

Ruth Mortimer is Marketing Week’s editor and a prolific blogger. She won a PPA Award for her forthright and insightful columns on marketing.

Sometimes you wonder if sports marketers were drinking beer at their initial planning meeting instead of during the matches or races themselves. At least, that’s how I like to imagine the meeting where the Paddy Power executives dreamed up the idea that footballer Nicklas Bendtner should flash its branded green-and-white underwear at the UEFA European Championships 2012.

If you haven’t seen the pictures of Denmark and Arsenal player Bendtner pulling up his shirt during his country’s match against Portugal to show off his Paddy Power pants, you’ve obviously been successfully avoiding all newspapers and TV. The image has appeared all over the world, showing off Paddy Power’s branding, despite the fact the betting brand is not an official UEFA partner.

UEFA has fined Bendtner EURO100,000 for ambush marketing. But Paddy Power has stepped up and gained even more publicity for the story by putting out another story that it will pay what it calls Bendtner’s “barmy penalty”. The footballer and brand both claim that no money passed between them.

It’s given the betting brand a reason to bring the whole affair back into the headlines for a second week running. It has even dubbed the episode “pantsgate” in case the journalists weren’t quick enough to think of a shorthand name. It has also faux-innocently promised to alert other players at the championships that they should not “wear their own lucky underpants” for the remainder of the games.

All in all, well done Paddy Power for an effective piece of ambush marketing. But there are some more serious questions about the nature of sponsorship that arise when looking at this case.

Only this week, it has been announced that Puma is under investigation by Olympic chiefs over concerns that as a non-sponsor, it has broken Olympic marketing restrictions in promoting its activity.

It does beg the question as to the value of official sponsorships. Consumers are sometimes completely in the dark as to which sponsors are paying for official status and which are the cheeky guerillas

First, Bendtner has not simply received a fine for his actions. He has also been banned for one 2014 World Cup Qualifying match. So this stunt has an effect on his playing career as well as penalising him financially.

This has not been altogether popular with football fans. If you look on any social network, you can see football fans questioning whether players should miss matches for breaking sponsorship agreements. Some are asking: are the commercial agreements around football tournaments more important than the actual game itself?

“Football has long been replaced by money making” says one commentator, while another points out “[Sponsors] are the people that matter when it comes to tournaments.”

There has already been much talk in this area directed at FIFA over a decision to enshrine the right to serve alcohol at the 2014 World Cup in law. Host nation Brazil had banned drinks being served at football matches back in 2003 to prevent violence. Again, sports fans questioned whether this was the commercial influence of alcohol sponsors.

Second, it has been noted that Bendtner’s fine is higher than the penalty that UEFA dishes out for racism at clubs. A tweet has been doing the rounds with the hashtag ‘priorities’ which lists how much less national clubs such as Spain and Serbia have been fined previously for racist incidents. All are less than Bendtner’s pants fine.

Third, it does beg the question as to the value of official sponsorships. Consumers are sometimes completely in the dark as to which sponsors are paying for official status and which are the cheeky guerillas. Nike and MasterCard were both thought to be official sponsors for the 2012 Olympics with only months to go to the Games, according to research commissioned by Marketing Week at the end of last year. Not good news for the genuine sponsors Adidas and Visa.

So for sponsorships to really have any worth, UEFA or FIFA do need powers to stop ambush marketers stealing all the glory with none of the financial assistance. Large scale events such as the Olympics require an enormous cash injection which would not be possible in this day and age without corporate involvement. So they must retain some special value for the brands involved.

How? Well, there has to be a better system than banning players from participating in important matches while the guerilla marketers simply pay up for fines rather than buying an official involvement. I’m not sure what the answer is, or I’d be demanding big bucks as a consultant to FIFA and UEFA. But “pantsgate” suggests that plenty of other brands would like to know the answer too.

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