Ambush marketing is a marketing technique which involves riding on the coattails of a major event without paying sponsorship fees, essentially using the event as a free promotion. One classic example of ambush marketing occurred at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, when the Nike company covered the city in ads, benefiting from the focus on the city for the Olympics without having to pay the often hefty sponsorship fees. Ambush marketing is a source of frustration for promoters of sports events, as well as companies which do pay sponsorship fees.
This type of marketing most commonly occurs in association with major sports events, although potentially other events could be used as a venue for ambush marketing as well. At a typical sports event, several companies pay very large fees for exclusive marketing rights, and these fees can sometimes number in the billions for events like the Olympics. In return for the fees, the company gets exclusive advertising space, and it is supposed to get protection from competitors. Rival soda companies, for example, cannot both pay sponsorship fees for the same event.
A variety of techniques are used in ambush marketing. The most basic is simply buying up billboard space around an event, assuring that people who attend the event will see the marketing. This practice is entirely legal, although event organizers and sponsors may find it annoying. Ambush marketers may also be more subtle, doing things like passing out t-shirts, hats, and other promotional gear to people attending the event so that their branding is seen in the stadium.
The issue of ambush marketing highlights the growing reliance on sponsorship fees among many major sports organizations. Some people have suggested that the massive sponsorship fees compromise such events; for example, at the Olympics, athletes are often not allowed to bring their own food and drink into the Olympic Village, so that if they are photographed or videoed, they will not undermine the sponsor of the event. In other instances, a sports team or organization may be forced to make certain concessions to meet the demands of a sponsor, raising questions about their integrity.
The next time you attend or happen to be in the neighborhood of a major sports event, you can probably spot some ambush marketing. In the stadium itself, large banners typically proclaim the major sponsors, and they may also play advertisements or pass out promotional materials. Look to the fringes of the stadium for materials from competitors.