Attempting to control what is said about your brand in 2010 may seem like an attempt to put toothpaste back in the tube, but that isn’t going to stop The Olympics organizers from trying. The Olympics have very specific rules about what can and cannot be said about the Winter Games  and the athletes participating in them.

But rather than focusing on the minutia of violators, the group would do better to focus on a bigger issue — brands don’t feel like advertising with NBC or with the Olympics directly is worth the money. 

The U.S. Olympic Committee dictates that brands unwilling to fork over the millions necessary to become one of the Olymics sponsors cannot associate themselves with the games or the athletes participating throughout the Olympic festivities. 

According to Lisa Baird, chief marketing officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee, brands that don’t pay to advertise at the Olympics “are barred from referring to the Games and their athletes in name, likeness or imagery that evokes the Games in any media without a waiver from the committee.”

But that is easier said than done. Many brands pay Olympic athletes high sums of money to wear and endorse their products throughout the year. But during this two week period, brands are requested to remain silent on the subject. Some are not complying. Some are pushing their limiations, while still others are having a bit of fun with the wording of the rules. 

Baird tells The Wall Street Journal:

“When people partake in this kind of ambush behavior, it hurts American athletes.”

That’s certainly a big statement, especially when the content in question often refers to well wishes for athletes from brands they work with. 

That’s the situation with Red Bull, which sponsors skier Lindsay Vonn’s physical therapy throughout the year. Red Bull’s marketing team has sent out twitters like this one recently:

“We’re rooting for you @LindseyVonn @Shaun_White @GregBretzz and
@Drahlves in the 2010 Winter #Olympics!” 

But others are pushing it much further. Retailer Target put up a huge Times Square billboard featuring snowboarder Shaun White before the games. Once competition started, his image was replaced with a sillhouette and a message that now reads “Gone to Vancouver.”

That’s because terms like “Olympics,” “Winter Games” and “silver/gold/bronze medals” are verboten for brands that aren’t paying for the right to use them. Which led Canadian athletic clothing chain Lululemon to sell clothing with the phrase: “Cool Sporting Event That Takes Place in British Columbia Between 2009 and 2011 Edition.” (The picture above apparently displays some of those items.)

That resulted in the brand getting publicly scolded by the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee. It’s unclear if the Olympic committee will start handing out fines, but more than a few brands have been chastened. Red Bull, for one, pulled all of its Olympic related tweets this week. 

But a bigger issue is the fact that brands are choosing to find traction before and after the games rather than during them. According to the TrendTopper MediaBuzz Ambush Index, 1/3 of the top 15 brands in the 2010 Olympics are “ambush marketers.”

The list is put out by Austin, Texas-based Global Language Monitor, and ranks perceived Olympic sponsors according to their presence in the media. The number one brand on the list is Roots Canada, one of those “ambushers.” Coke, on the other hand, reportedly paid about $100 million to advertize during the games to be an official Olympic global partner, and is only #16 on the list.

And at the European Sponsorship Association’s annual conference in November, 79% of the 200 leading brands that participate in sponsorship opportunities said that “domestic Olympic packages were not a good value relative to their cost.” 

NBC and the Olympic committee can do whatever they want with regard to policing their terms and phrases during the Olympics, but the fact that so many brands want in on the Olympic goodwill and they’re not turning to those entities to get it is proof that there’s a bigger problem at hand.