Even after Toyota made waves earlier this week when it pulled Olympic ads from the Japanese market ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Games, many other advertisers say they still plan to compete.
Despite a yearlong delay and more than a year of uncertainty during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Olympics continue to be a moneymaker: Brands like Coca-Cola, Airbnb, GE, Intel, Samsung, Procter & Gamble and Visa are all part of the estimated $3 billion in sponsorships for the Summer Games, which officially begin today. And last month, NBCUniversal—the main broadcaster for the U.S. market—said revenue for the 2020 games was on track to reach $1.25 billion with at least 120 advertisers, passing the $1.2 billion it brought in during the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics. (An NBCU spokesperson told Forbes on Wednesday that so far no advertisers have pulled out of their advertising in the U.S.)
During today’s Opening Ceremony, many brands advertising began running their new commercials. Ally Financial—which scrapped its 2020 creative work and restarted filming earlier this year to make sure the ads felt contextually relevant—isn’t an official sponsor for the Olympics. However, along with a main TV ad, the company is also showcasing nearly two dozen athletes who don’t have official brand sponsors. a
To find which athletes to work with for its online-only campaign called “The Unsponsored,” Ally Chief Marketing Officer Andrea Brimmer said the company read through GoFundMe pages set up by various athletes. The company then donated $250,000 to athletes for them to use however they wanted. (Three Olympians each got $25,000 while another 17 split the rest.)
“I don’t think there is any time better now that athletes need an ally and the athletes need to know that the brand and the country is behind them,” Brimmer told Forbes. “They can’t have fans, they can’t have family…This is going to alter their psyche. We have not for a second considered pulling out.”
Toyota’s decision to pull out of Japan could “do them well in Japan” by “sort of siding with the people against the powers that be,” said Neeru Paharia, a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. And while she thinks Toyota’s decision to advertise in other markets might not hurt the brand, pulling out of the host country is “a vote of no confidence.”
“There’s a tension,” she said. “At the beginning of the pandemic, just the thought of trying to sell stuff to people felt inappropriate at that moment in time. I feel like this could be the same thing to a certain extent. It could come across as it’s not the right time for this. You risk coming across as inauthentic and trying to sell people stuff, which is normally okay, but in the middle of a pandemic, it feels tasteless in some ways…Or tone deaf.”
In an emailed statement to Forbes about the decision, a Toyota spokesperson said that individual countries and regions manage their own media plans for the company’s Olympic and Paralympic ad campaign. (According to The Associated Press, Toyota’s eight-year deal that began in 2015 is worth nearly $1 billion.)
“In Japan, the local Toyota office previously decided not to air the campaign out of sensitivity to the COVID-19 situation in that country,” according to the spokesperson. “In the U.S., the campaign has already been shown nationally and will continue to be shown as planned with our media partners during the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.”
Even if people aren’t entirely against having Olympics during the pandemic, there’s also the question of whether they’ll tune in. A survey of 2,000 U.S. consumers conducted by the marketing technology firm Zeta Global found that 45% weren’t looking forward to the Summer Games while another 17.5% were still undecided. The results showed that adults ages 18-34 had the highest proportion of interested viewers. Meanwhile, 48% of women were interested compared to just 41% of men.
“It’s difficult to make a huge commitment that makes you be official in the new world when every variable is at play,” said Zeta Global CMO Crystal Eastman. “We’re seeing much more diverse toe-dipping.”
Most, if not all, companies have continued their Olympic advertising in the U.S. According to Bridgestone CMO Philip Dobbs, the tire brand’s strategies for the Olympic and Paralympic Games “are huge drivers of diversity and inclusion, service, and sustainability.” Bridgestone—which became a Worldwide Olympic Partner in 2014 and then a worldwide Paralympic partner in 2018—is working with more than 70 athlete ambassadors including social media campaigns and and TV ads starring former Olympic gold medalist swimmer Missy Franklin.
“The Olympic and Paralympic Games are a rallying point that brings the world together, creating the first truly global marketing platform in Bridgestone history,” Dobbs said in a statement emailed to Forbes. “These partnerships provide a consistent and powerful opportunity to tell fans and customers around the world more about who we are and what we do, as well as strengthen our global culture by engaging our 140,000 employees.”
The delayed Olympics also gave additional companies an opportunity to advertise. A new ad from Peloton that also debuted during the Opening features a variety of elite athletes including Olympics like runners Usain Bolt and Allyson Felix, surfer John Florence and Paralympian track and field record-holder Scout Bassett but also features the fitness company’s everyday users. According to Peloton Head Of Global Marketing Dara Treseder, the fitness company decided earlier this year to create a campaign titled “It’s You. That Makes Us,” which focuses on the company’s community rather than its products.
Treseder said all of the athletes featured have been Peloton members since before they became spokespeople for the brand. (Along with TV, out-of-home and digital ads, the campaign also includes Olympic athletes such as Bolt leading Peloton workouts.)
“We are celebrating the breadth and depth of our members, including these elite athletes,” she said. “But guess what: It’s not just them. That’s what’s really important, too. The Olympics are not just about the people who perform—they play a huge role too—but it’s about everybody else. The people who got them ready, the people cheering them on in the stands, the people watching on TV, the people who are celebrating this historic moment where the world comes together.”
Although marketing in 2020 took a somber turn to match the mood of the pandemic, some U.S. companies saw the 2021 Super Bowl as a chance to bring humor back to their again. And now, for the Olympics, some ads are taking a comedic approach while others have the typical themes of unity and perseverance that span from sentimental to upbeat. An ad from Michelob Ultra stars Bolt recruiting fellow runners for a beer. Facebook’s TV spots feature new Olympic sports like skateboarding, surfing and climbing by showing how people in each use Facebook to find community. P&G’s campaign honors mothers who raise their children while Allianz has chosen to highlight athletes’ mental health struggles.
“People have a worry cup and it was full,” said Harry Roman-Torres, Chief Brand Strategy Officer at Droga5, which created new campaigns for Facebook and Mattress Firm. “So brands were respectful of how people were feeling, and we’ve gotten to a point where people are looking for joy and looking for levity.”