— Advertisers take huge risks when they tie their products to Olympic athletes. Not only is it possible that the face of your shoe, soft drink or credit card will experience the agony of defeat on a international stage, but in some cases there’s no guarantee that the athlete or athletes will even make it to the competition.
Below are our picks for the eight biggest marketing blunders in modern Olympic history. These blunders fall into two categories: events that embarrassed a specific company or product and things that hurt the image of the Olympics as a whole.
After composing our list, we interviewed bloggers from three fields — advertising (Steve Hall of Adrants.com), sports (Chris Richardson of IntentionalFoul.com) and popular culture (Mark La Monica of Pet Rock: The Pop Culture Blog at Newsday.com) — to add their thoughts.
8. What is that thing? (Atlanta 1996)
The blunder: The official mascot for the 1996 summer games was named Izzy — short for Whatizit. Even by the generally low standards of sports mascots, this ugly blue thing with Ronald McDonald shoes and a slightly maniacal grin was horrendous. Izzy was ridiculed by everyone from Bob Costas to “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening.
Mitigating circumstances: He was still a lot less creepy and annoying than Barney.
Chris Richardson adds: “Izzy was horrible. If that’s the best you could do, then don’t even try. There’s got to be something that says ‘Olympics’ better than a blue blob.”
7. The fans stay home (Athens 2004)
The blunder: The huge sentimental impact of the Summer Olympics returning to Athens in 2004 didn’t prevent both the Greeks and potential tourists from electing to watch the competition from their living rooms. For many smaller events and even some of the bigger ones, the stands looked more like a Montreal Expos game than a competition between the world’s most elite athletes. Rows and rows of empty bleachers became a common sight — and a running joke for those watching the Games.
Mitigating circumstances: Critics predicted a much bigger debacle, suggesting that Greece wouldn’t finish construction in time for the games. The seats may have been empty, but at least the paint was dry.
Mark La Monica adds: “I remember seeing those empty stadiums and thinking, ‘Eesh. That’s not good.’”
6. The dream is over (Athens 2004)
The blunder: After a decade of almost comical dominance on the world stage, Carmelo Anthony, Tim Duncan and the rest of the U.S. men’s national basketball team were outshot and outhustled by a bunch of guys named Sconochini, Galanda and Basile. The highest-profile athletes to attend the 2004 Summer Olympics acted like prima donnas, didn’t play like a team and ended up with the bronze medal, barely beating Lithuania in the third-place game.
Mitigating circumstances: While the United States and the NBA were humiliated, the citizens of Argentina (gold) and Italy (silver) certainly don’t consider this a marketing blunder.
Chris Richardson adds: “I think it was just a wake-up call. It was an eye-opening moment and it made United States take things seriously. At first it was a shock, but it made us put better basketball players on the floor.”
The blunder: Bode Miller was arguably the most hyped U.S. athlete for the 2006 Winter Games, scoring huge advertising deals with Nike and Visa, among others. Then he engaged in a torrent of bad behavior, admitting to drinking booze while skiing and then downplaying the importance of Olympic competition. Some of these comments might have been forgotten or forgiven if Miller had won a single medal.
Mitigating circumstances: Skiing fans will note that the athlete has always been laid-back, and his comments were not out of character.
Steve Hall adds: “The biggest danger is aligning yourself with an Olympic athlete: You have no idea what’s going to happen. They’re going to lose, they’re not even going to go to the Olympics or they’re not going to qualify early on.”
4. The Suzy Hamilton slasher ad (Sydney 2000)
The blunder: Nike unveiled an advertisement that showed U.S. Olympic middle-distance track darling Suzy Favor Hamilton running through the woods, using her speed and shoes to escape a masked slasher film caricature who was trying to cut her up with a chainsaw. Critics said the ad encouraged violence against women, and the ad was taken off the air.
Mitigating circumstances: The advertisement was technically better than the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake that came out a few years later.
Chris Richardson adds: “I thought it was a cool ad, but I can also see how people could think it’s not good for everyone to watch. It’s the kind of ad I’d expect to see on SportsCenter at 11 at night, not on the prime-time hours during the Olympics.”
3. Ben Johnson loses medal (Seoul 1988)
The blunder: The year before the Games Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was the Associated Press Athelete of the Year and had parlayed his fame into endorsements his coach reportedly valued at $480,000 a month. But by the end of the games he was the highest-profile athlete to test positive for banned drugs in Olympic history. He set the world record in the men’s 100 meter sprint, and then had to give up his gold medal to second-place finisher Carl Lewis. Johnson wasn’t the first athlete to use banned drugs, but his scandal did more to stoke suspicion in the average Olympics fan, and it tarnished the Games.
Mitigating circumstances: Johnson would have fit right in if he played professional baseball or another major league sport, which in 1988 didn’t seem to care about banned drugs.
Chris Richardson adds: “I remember watching the qualifying events, and he wasn’t blowing people away. Then he wins big, and loses the medal. I was 17 and still felt an innocence about sports. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, there really are cheaters out there.”
2. The logo debacle (Barcelona 1992)
The blunder: Reebok had exclusive rights to produce warm-up outfits and other apparel for American athletes at the 1992 Summer Games. Michael Jordan and other members of the USA basketball team had contracts with Nike and refused to bare the Reebok logos when they accepted their gold medals.
Mitigating circumstances: Jordan covered the Reebok logo by draping himself in the red, white and blue of the American flag. (It would have been much, much worse if he used the old Soviet hammer and sickle.)
Steve Hall adds: “What could be worse for a brand than have their logo covered up when 100 million or so people are going to see it?”
1. Dan and Dave disappoint (Barcelona 1992)
The blunder: Reebok spent millions of dollars on advertising that promoted the prospects of Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson, two American decathletes who were expected to perform well at the Olympic Games in Barcelona. O’Brien, who held the world record in the sport, failed spectacularly when he was unable to clear the pole vault. He scored zero points for the event and failed to qualify for Barcelona.
Mitigating circumstances: Despite the huge disappointment (which could have been avoided if he had set his pole vault height at a lower level), O’Brien appeared in commercials rooting on Dave, who won a bronze medal. O’Brien won the gold four years later in Atlanta.
Mark La Monica adds: “Reebok hyped it up, and Dan didn’t make it. I don’t think anyone will ever forget that. Actually I wonder if Reebok might have benefited? If Dan and Dave had won I doubt we would be talking about it now.”