Pressure escalates on Winter Olympic brands to act against Russia’s anti-gay laws

Gay rights activists are ramping up the pressure on Winter Olympic sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Visa and Samsung to speak out over Russia’s controversial laws on homosexuality before the start of the event later this week (7 February).

Activists ramp up protests demanding a boycott of the Games and sponsors products.

Gay rights groups across the world are bringing their campaigns to a head this week using the Opening Ceremony as a day of protest against the International Olympic Committee and its commercial partners.

The Courage Group, a support organisation for homosexuals, is orchestrating more than 3,500 members and Visa customers to drop use of the credit card on the day of the ceremony. It cites the financial firm’s perceived lack of action around Russia’s “draconian anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LBGT) laws”.

Elsewhere, Coke has been axed from the short-lists of the Out in the City and G3 Magazine awards. Both titles blame the drinks maker’s “unwillingness” to express any “explicit criticism or concern about the new homophobic legislation”. It comes after Coke became the first Super Bowl advertiser to featue a gay couple in its ad, a point which drew praise and criticism from viewers.

The IOC has also come under renewed fire this week (4 February) following a campaign labeling the organisers as ”hypocrites”. Global sportswear maker SKINS has launched social media to push the “ethical wisdom” of awarding the Games to Russia by highlighting key elements of the IOC’s charter on Twitter and its own website. SKINS says the country’s’s anti-gay stance flies in the face of the brand’s long-standing “True Spirit of Competition” mantra.

The actions are backed by a wider effort involving around 40 human rights groups that has seen them pen an open letter to the IOC. Sponsors have been reluctant to respond to the challenges from activists in recent months deferring to the IOC to take the lead.

A Samsung spokesman said: “As an Olympic TOP Partner, Samsung believes in the spirit of the Games and its unique ability to engage the world in a way that is positive and inspirational. We support the Olympic Movement and wish as many people as possible can take part in the Olympic Games.”

A statement from Coke reads: ”As an Olympic sponsor since 1928, we believe the Olympic Games are a force for good that unite people through a common interest in sports, and we have seen firsthand the positive impact and long-lasting legacy they leave on every community that has been a host.

“As one of the world’s most inclusive brands, we value and celebrate diversity.  We have long been a strong supporter of the LGBT community and have advocated for inclusion and diversity through both our policies and practices. We do not condone intolerance or discrimination of any kind anywhere in the world.”

Visa was unable to provide comment by the time this article was published.

Despite the growing levels of disquiet, Olympic chiefs and organisers are pushing forward with plans for the tournament. The Sochi Games are expected to generate the most revenue and be the most expensive Olympic Games ever, according to some industry observers, with commercial earnings from the tournament tipped to be half a trillion dollars – an all time record for both Winter and Summer Games.  

Sponsors are adopting a low-key, local approaches to mitigate any negative affect from the fallout over the country’s anti-gay rights and ongoing terrorism concerns.

The political storm around the event and buzz the London 2012 Games caused appears to have lifted interest in the Winter Olympics. More than a third (38 per cent) of the UK are interested in the Sochi Games compared to 32 per cent in the lead up to the 2010 Vancouver Games, according to Repucom. 

Mike Wragg, head of market research at Repucom, says: “For a participating nation such as the UK, where the Winter Games are not as well followed as they are in most other European nations, this rise is surprising.

“UK figures show that people are a lot more interested in these Games than they were at a similar time ahead of the Vancouver Games in 2010. The political landscape in Russia is certainly a talking point among many and although we are seeing a distinct lack of brand activation amongst Sochi’s commercial partners, interest in the UK is expected to continue to rise.”

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