2012 London Olympics: Inside the Brand Exclusion Zone

The masses are surrounded by ads at the London 2012 Games, but they have to be the right kind of ads in the Brand Exclusion Zone.

John Scott Lewinskiby John Scott Lewinski

The 2012 London Olympics are going down with an atmosphere of hospitality and friendliness not seen in Beijing or Athens. On the ground here in the UK capital, that stereotypical British courtesy pervades all aspects of the massive event.

But I still felt the need to mess with it. I would test that classic Brit civility in the Olympic Park’s Brand Exclusion Zone.

All Olympic Games are privately funded. In order to pay for the Games, a large percentage of the money comes from sponsorships. That’s hardly a news flash as the Olympics have been a largely corporate operation for decades. Here in the UK, LOCOG (London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) raised more than £700 million for the Games through these sponsorship programs. That’s in addition to income the International Olympic Committee raised on global sponsorships.

So, you end up with a big pile of corporate money driving Olympic preparations, venue construction, infrastructure improvements and the actual operation of the Olympiad. Most of those sponsors are well known entities like Visa, Coke, Panasonic BMW, Cadbury, British Airways and others. And business entities of that size didn’t get so big not knowing how to keep their brand sacred. They’re not shelling out their cash just for Queen and Country.

According to a LOCOG spokesperson, it’s understood by an Olympic sponsor that they will not have to compete for attention in return for their business.

“It’s necessary to make sure those sponsors have a measure of protection,” the spokesperson said. “They receive exclusivity in their category.”

That means, within the Olympic Park and for one kilometer in every direction, no advertising is allowed except for approved branded sponsors – hence, the Brand Exclusion Zone. That sounds like a prison Mad Max had to break out of, but it simply means, since BMW is the official vehicle provider of the London Olympics, no other automaker can advertise within the zone. To paraphrase a classic SNL skit, “No Pepsi. Coke.”

And shops or dining areas within the zone take only Visa or cash. Finally, only those signed, sealed and delivered sponsors are allowed to display Olympic logos, including the Five Rings or any 2012 London specific emblems.

You don’t have to look too hard to find opinion pieces ripping the Zone as if it’s some kind of corporate plot to take over the world. They call it financial Fascism. They serve up the verbal equivalent of an Occupy encampment. All that’s lacking is headline like, “Death to the Pigs!”

If you ask LOCOG about all that activist press protest, nobody there knows what all the fuss is about: “It’s been standard practice for years to restrict advertising at and around venues to Olympic Sponsors. And it will continue to be the practice as many of those corporate sponsors are signed on through 2020 already.”

To make sure the exclusion zone was in control long before these Games began, LOCOG contracted with CBS (a big UK outdoor advertising management company) so the local displays were in line. Outdoor space was sold at auction to the official sponsors more than a year before the Opening Ceremonies and before the Olympic Park was completed.

Still, all of this advertising exclusivity in the air suggested the potential to get ugly if non-approved branding tried to shoulder its way into or around Olympic Park. I began to wonder if I was getting soft-pedaled a “nothing to see here” line from LOCOG. If this zone was standard practice, why had it become such a hot button issue at these Olympics?

Another LOCOG spokesperson, who also asked to be identified by title only, explained that the London BEZ was under scrutiny because of an incident during the most recent World Cup in SOuth Africa.

“A regional beer manufacturer sent 50 specially recruited women wearing the brewer’s branded clothing in and around the soccer venues in violation of the Cup’s branding contracts,” the spokesperson said. “It was a clear ambush attempt and had to be dealt with aggressively there. We were on the lookout for something similar here.”

Even in the South African case, the record shows the beer girls were simply rounded up and asked to leave. They didn’t become public enemies Numbers One to 50. The corporate masters had to be served, but no one got their head busted.

Efforts to get a statement from BMW, Coca-Cola or Visa were unsuccessful. While declining to comment, the spokespeople for each corporation indicated they leave the Brand Exclusion Zone for LOCOG to handle.

If said corporate fat cats weren’t willing to talk to me, was that another reason to stick my fingers in this exclusion mess?

Apparently, ff some corporate interloper does try to pull anything in the zone, officials with the Olympic Delivery Authority (the entity that supervised the building of venues) are standing guard and watching.

“They explore the venues in and around the Park. If they find someone (promoting a rival) or a rogue billboard, they would speak to that person politely and calmly or call the company involved.”

To test the level of draconian branding in the forbidden zone, The wanna-be Woodward and Bernstein inside me decided to test it on foot. I would pile on unapproved branded clothing and traipse through the BEZ.

On the first day, I donned a Harley-Davidson sweatshirt and cap. I happened to have those items on hand because I was riding and reviewing motorcycles while here on the ground in London. I was in unapproved branded attire from the waste up and didn’t hide from anyone in official Olympic staff garb. I stayed out in the open. I even made a point to linger around anything remotely automotive in theme.

But, I didn’t draw a response. I’m told now by the LOCOG spokespersons that was because there really is no official motorcycle of the London Olympics. Yes, BMW makes bikes, too. But, I got the impression the Olympic Delivery Authority people are more on the lookout for automakers trying to park in the zone.

WIth day one of my in-person investigation in the books, I’d managed to prove absolutely nothing except standing around like a fool in a crowd of thousands in branded clothing will give you sore feet and bruised shoulders from everyone bumping into you. I could see my Pulitzer chances fading.

I got serious when I returned the next day. I wore a Jaguar cap and a Jaguar branded shirt, squarely targeting a little BMW heat. I was a 6’3” 250 lb. lummox screaming to the world how appealing British sports cars were. A Top Gear stunt had nothing on me for sheer audacity. All I lacked was face paint, and I gave that a lot of consideration, too.

Again, I stayed out in the open – standing near any BMW-themed sign I could find. I even tried to make a bit of a spectacle of myself – which is a trick when you don’t really want to cause a scene and have someone more dangerous than the Olympic Delivery Authority come down on you. Still, I tipped the cap, tugged the shirt, made zoom-zoom sounds. I was more a Tourettes victim than an investigate journalist at this point.

I did draw the curiosity of a young woman in an official pink and purple Olympic staff polo shirt. She asked me what I was doing, and I told her the truth: I was a reporter trying to test the limits and patience of the Brand Exclusion Zone.

Again, she couldn’t on the record and keep her job, but she explained individual clothing was OK within reason. If someone came in a Burger King costume with face paint, they’d be asked to leave. But, Olympic Delivery Authority people were not to stop individual visitors wearing something outside Olympic sponsorship.

In my heart, I can’t escape the reality that she didn’t approach me as much to shut down my impromptu advertising as to find out why I looked like such an absolutely knob.

“Outside the venue, imagine a van with a huge (unapproved) sign parked where it could draw attention,” one spokesperson said. “Or picture a shop window displaying the Five Ring logo without approval. Those kind of things are not allowed in the zone.”

“It’s OK if a restaurant inside the one kilometer serves Pepsi. It was OK for (British clothing company) Marks and Spenser to run a campaign called, ‘Get set for a great British Summer,’ because they never directly mentioned the Olympics. That was very clever.”

So, if LOCOG and its Olympic Delivery Authority staff aren’t setting fire to anyone sipping a 7-Up in the Brand Exclusion Zone, why is it drawing the ire of print and online critics that say it’s creepy and discriminatory?

“We’re used to a high level of scrutiny on all aspects of these Games, whether during them or leading up to them,” the spokesperson said. “It’s natural that people want to have their say. If they don’t have all the facts on how our branding and brand exclusion area works, then the criticism is understandable.”

After testing it all myself, I think a better investigative piece would have been looking into why some commentators are in such a rush to find something “corporate” to rip in the hope of drawing protest-minded readers – because the Brand Exclusion Zone at the 2012 London Games is no big whoop.