Corporations are willing to invest millions of dollars to become Olympic sponsors but that investment can sometimes make them the target if controversy emerges. Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press
It's probably fair to say that the worldwide protest this week urging the big Olympic sponsors to take a public stand against Russia's anti-gay law wasn't an overwhelming success.
Three corporate supporters of the U.S. Olympic team — AT&T, Chobani, a yogurt maker, and DeVry University — spoke out against the Russian law in no uncertain terms.
But for the Olympic's large corporate sponsors, those multinational corporations who pony up in excess of $100 million for global marketing rights, it was a different matter.
Corporations such as Coca-Cola and McDonald's chose a less specific approach to the issue by releasing general statements opposing discrimination or in support of the the broad goals of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community.
While activists argue that the Sochi Olympics are the perfect platform to make a political statement on a pressing public issue, marketing and brand experts say global sponsors who have anted up tens of millions of dollars for exclusive rights will be looking at the context of the Games much differently.
"I don't think that we're ready to necessarily embrace using the Olympics as an agent of change in the world," says Michael Mulvey, an assistant professor of marketing in the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa.
"I think companies have to be really careful before they go in there and do anything that might compromise that focus on the athletes."
If these companies were to take a strong position, "the short-term gains in terms of buzz and publicity that they may get may be met with … a backlash, and perhaps even anger or boycotts by those that feel they just didn't behave appropriately."
Mulvey likens the situation Olympic sponsors are in to the separation of church and state, reflecting a broadly held view that the Olympics are a kind of "sacred event," where celebrating the athletes, excellence and the joy of sport in general are the main focus.
"Many consumers are very sensitive if companies become overly involved, and they're very sensitive about potential corporate influence corrupting the Games or the ideals of the Games," he says.
"So companies need to pause and not only look at their own agenda in terms of what brand message they want to get, but they have to make sure it aligns or doesn't conflict with Olympic values."
The advocacy group All Out and its allies planned 21 demonstrations around the world on Wednesday, and another eight are scheduled over next week.
Those actions come as a coalition of groups has been working for months to press sponsors to speak out on the Russian law, signed in July by President Vladimir Putin, that outlaws pro-gay "propaganda" that could be accessible to minors, and backs that up with jail terms.
Minky Wordon, director of global initiatives for Human Rights Watch, has said companies like Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Visa "are very much on the wrong side of history in refusing to use their leverage with the International Olympic Committee to ask for reform and to defend LGBT Russians."
But on Thursday, Google was praised by Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT civil rights organization, for its doodle depicting Olympic athletes against a rainbow background.
“Google has once again proven itself to be a true corporate leader for equality,” said HRC president Chad Griffin. “Alongside Olympic sponsors like AT&T, Google has made a clear and unequivocal statement that Russia’s anti-LGBT discrimination is indefensible. Now it’s time for each and every remaining Olympic sponsor to follow their lead. The clock is ticking, and the world is watching.”
But criticizing Russia's anti-gay law is a pretty "tough ask" of the major sponsors, says Alfred DuPuy, managing director of Interbrand Canada, a consulting firm that publishes an annual report on the world's best global brands.
High bar to clear
If we start to put that kind of pressure on the advertisers, DuPuy asks, then should we as viewers even watch the Olympics because we don't agree with where they're located, or with something that the host country is doing?
"I don't like it either, but I mean, as a viewer, do I want to penalize showing support for my country because I’m not in agreement with the politics of the nation in which the Olympics are held? That's seems to be a pretty high … standard that nobody's going to be able to clear."
That said, DuPuy also notes that companies could have a role as part of the dialogue around a particular issue, as Coke and McDonald's have done.
"At least they're having that dialogue, and I think that's what really matters in the end."
At the same time, observes Nicolas Papadopoulos, a professor of marketing and international business at Carleton University in Ottawa, corporate reaction might have been a bit different if it were centred on an issue that directly affected more people.
"With a gay issue, I don't know that there would be a lot of people around the world that would actually decide to go down to a street and wave placards against the Russian attitude toward gays. Why? Because the issue, although it is a very important issue, it doesn't touch on the lives of a lot of people."
If you look at the numbers who attended the protests this week, he says, they were quite small, "50 people here, 100 people there."
For their part, corporations are concerned about their brand and, for companies like Coca-Cola and McDonald's, says Papadopoulous, that goes far beyond a soft drink or a hamburger.
'Part of our lives'
"They are part of our lives and so they protect their values, and they try to articulate them in very discreet and very detailed ways and that's why we believe in them," he says.
"So part of the reason they, as opposed to other companies, are more inclined to go and sponsor the Olympics is exactly because it is supposed to match with their ideals and what their values are."
It has become a point of pride, Papadopoulous says, for both McDonald's and Coke to be associated with the Olympics.
"Therefore they have to strike a balance between what they perceive the general mood of the global population to be versus what their values and ideals are."
Not quite there yet
Finding that balance can be tricky. And "occasionally companies don't get it right," says Mulvey.
They talk about things that are valued by one audience, but another audience, usually one that they really haven't thought about fully, can produce a backlash, he says.
"If you take an issue which is very au courant in one nation and you put it on the global stage, well, the rest of the world may not be quite there yet.
"In fact it may conflict with religious values, it may conflict with existing legal systems, and so it sets the stage for conflict, and I just don't think you want to be taking any attention away from the athletes at the Olympics."