Sochi Olympics isn't a guaranteed winner for sponsors

A test burning of the cauldron for the Olympic flame is seen ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympic at Adler Arena on January 31, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. 

An ice sculpture featuring a poster with a burning newspaper shaped like an Olympic torch and the words 'A Free Press - the Most Difficult Discipline In Sochi' stands during a demonstration by Reporters Without Borders on February 4, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. The demonstration is taking place three days ahead of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

Russia passed a law last year forbidding "propaganda" that promotes LGBT rights. That ban extends to visiting foreigners — like athletes, or the brands sponsoring the games. Some of those companies including McDonald's and Coca-Cola make a point of promoting their support for gay rights in the U.S.     

"Well, this is all just a terribly awkward situation for the sponsors," says Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.  "This is the sort of thing that sponsors just don’t want to talk about, and they really hope that this story dies down." 

Meanwhile, Calkins thinks brands like Coke have been doing their best to placate their friends here.  Coke’s Super Bowl ad included images of a two-dad family: 

Calkins thinks the timing-- so close to Sochi--carries a message:

"I think there they were saying, 'We get it. But hang with us, folks. We’re going to put this in our Super-Bowl spot, but when it comes to the Olympics, we’ve got to act differently.'" 

In fact, Coke’s written statement about the Sochi controversy refers to the Super Bowl ad.  And it doesn’t mention Russia at all. In their words:

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, equality and diversity through both our policies and practices. We do not condone intolerance or discrimination of any kind anywhere in the world.

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. We support the core values of the Olympic Movement – excellence, friendship and respect – and are proud to continue our role in helping to make the Olympics a memorable experience for athletes, fans and communities all around the world.

As a business, it is our role and our responsibility to ensure that we embrace human rights practices in our own workplaces.  It is also appropriate for us to help foster diversity, tolerance, unity and respect among all people.

We will continue to demonstrate our support of the LGBT community and, more broadly, promote our values for diversity through our policies and actions. Most recently, we ran a television commercial in the United States, in front of the largest Super Bowl audience in history, that provides a snapshot of the lives of real Americans representing a diverse slate of ethnicities, religions, races and other groups. The ad has a powerful message that we believe spreads optimism, promotes inclusion and celebrates humanity - values that are core to Coca-Cola.

The advertisement, other videos and additional information can be found on our Journey website at: AmericaIsBeautiful

Information on our support for the Olympics and the LGBT community can be found our our Journey website at: Sochi Olympics Sponsorship

 Not so fast, says Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign.  "You know, at the end of the day, you have to choose up sides," he says.

His group, and 39 others, including Human Rights Watch, have asked Coke, McDonald’s, Dow Chemical, and the other top Sochi Olympics sponsors to issue statements repudiating Russia’s anti-gay law.  

Sainz knows the choice isn’t easy.  He says that's the point.

"Sponsorships are calculations, right? You clearly sign up hoping that sponsorship will accrue entirely to your benefit," he says. "But in some cases, it may not. And this is one of those situations in which it's not going to be all upside for these companies."

The rise of social media makes it tougher for brands like Coke and McDonalds, says Brian Ellner, an executive withthe PR firm Edelman, who previously worked for the Human Rights Campaign. 

"It’s a global conversation, and it’s being powered on social media," he says. "And this is the new reality."

In Sochi, the Opening Ceremonies begin tomorrow.  On Twitter, the contests have already started.

About the author

Dan is a sustainability reporter for Marketplace.

An ice sculpture featuring a poster with a burning newspaper shaped like an Olympic torch and the words 'A Free Press - the Most Difficult Discipline In Sochi' stands during a demonstration by Reporters Without Borders on February 4, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. The demonstration is taking place three days ahead of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

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