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Brands and the politics of sponsorship

Posted by Tamara Littleton on February 7th, 2014 at 5:04 am

For brands, sponsoring major events like the Olympics and the World Cup can bring benefits that are hard to ignore. Adidas attributed a boost in sales to its sponsorship of London 2012. Coca-Cola created more than 120 pieces of content as part of its London 2012 sponsorship activity.

Sponsorship gives brands a chance to enter new markets, while promoting the brand on a global scale. Yet when they sign up to sponsor international events, they don’t just get the benefits. They get the politics, too.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics saw sponsors targeted for their association with the event, with protesters putting pressure on them over China’s human rights record. When people took to the streets in Rio over the Brazilian Governments preparations for the 2014 World Cup, the media turned to the sponsors for their response.

Now, at the start of Sochi 2014, some sponsors are finding it impossible to escape political questions over human rights and the government’s controversial law banning so-called gay ‘propaganda’. These are brands that simply signed up to sponsor one of the biggest events in the world, and presumably support the ethics of the Olympics movement (including ‘Principle  6’ of the Olympic Charter which opposes all discrimination).

How, then, did they find themselves embroiled in rows over Russian politics?

The backlash

The sponsors of the Winter Games have faced calls from US investors to use their influence to “ensure the human rights of Russian citizens, as well as athletes and visitors to the Olympics.”

Human Rights Watch has written to the ten main sponsors urging them to “speak up” about human rights abuses in Russia. It then published an emailed response from ATOS, which said that it was committed to diversity, and that the IOC had assured them that the Russian Government would respect the Olympic Charter.

Two of the main sponsors in particular are experiencing the brunt of the public backlash.

Coca-Cola places diversity at the heart of its branding, which has led protestors to ask why it’s sponsoring the Games when they are being held in Russia, with its discriminatory laws. In January, a protestor was arrested for unfurling a rainbow flag at the Torch Relay. The guard who made the arrest had a Coca-Cola logo on his uniform. The brand had to issue a statement and respond to questions on its Facebook page explaining that all security guards wear the logos of Olympic sponsors on their uniforms. It also re-iterated its own history of support for LGBT issues. But still it faces the backlash: Ireland’s Trinity College will be banning Coke on campus during the Olympics in protest at the brand’s Olympic involvement.

McDonald’s has also found itself on the sharp end of protests. When the brand started using #CheersToSochi on Twitter to cheer on athletes, protestors hijacked the hashtag, and now a search for the term returns thousands of angry messages directed at sponsors of the event.

With new reports of a mass cull of stray dogs and cats in the Sochi area, even more people are taking to social networks and petition sites to criticize sponsors and call for boycotts.


Many brands take a ‘politics-neutral’ approach, avoiding taking sides on  controversial or political issues. But the reality is that these days, if you’re involved in massive campaigns and sponsorships, this is an increasingly difficult position to maintain. If you don’t respond, you’re seen as being complicit anyway (and going against your stated brand values), as Coke found.

If you do, you risk getting it wrong or upsetting people either by going too far, or not far enough.

Some brands do get involved. To mark the opening of the Sochi Games, Google changed its Doodle to rainbow colours, and included the quote from the Olympic Charter:

"The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play." –Olympic Charter

Perhaps brands can take a political stance, after all.

2 Responses to “Brands and the politics of sponsorship”

  1. Morgan M. says:

    Hello, Tamara,

    I'm a young, aspiring PR professional and I found your piece on brands and the politics of sponsorship vey insightful. I'm also curious to hear your take on the HoneyMaid #ThisIsWholesome campaign and why other companies with similar marketing tactics have fallen short or faced controversy (such as Cheerio). Is it simply a delicate balance or degree of subtlety in delivery that keeps controversy at bay? Is it something else entirely? Thank you for your insight.


    Morgan M.

    • Hi Morgan

      Thanks for the comment!

      For those that don’t know – when Cheerios used an inter-racial family in an advert in 2013 it ended up closing the comments on YouTube due to the vitriol being poured on the ad. Intense debate raged around it, and the brand was pretty quick to back away from the controversy where it could – although it did bring the ad back for the Super Bowl. In March 2014, HoneyWell released the #ThisIsWholesome ad, which featured racially diverse families, gay fathers and tattooed rockers as parents, rather than the traditional Ma & Pa set up.

      I think the difference with Honeywell, is that it set out to support its values passionately. Its campaign also faced controversy and hate speech, but the brand allowed the debate to continue rather than trying to close it down. It then produced a brilliant ad in April called Love.

      The Love advert used the negative responses generated to highlight the positive ones, and send the message that love is the only thing that matters when it comes to family https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cBC-pRFt9OM.

      I would argue that while the public reaction was mixed for both ads, HoneyWell took the negative responses and made its message stronger. You can’t control the reaction of the audience, but you can control your response.

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