Airing Olympic-themed Commercials Versus Putting your Marketing Budget in the Toilet – A Comparison

Over the course of my 33 years in advertising, I must’ve been handed a hundred “program ads” to write – you know, the kind of ad a company runs in an event program to express support for, say, the dizzying Everest of achievement of the local curling squad.

As a junior writer on such assignments, the first thing I did (after rolling my eyes) was look for some flimsy connection between my client’s product and whatever sport they were currently wasting money on.

 Football fans: Don’t pass up our low-interest checking account. No penalties and we’ll never hike the fee.

(Oh, I was a clever one, let me tell you.)

As my abilities improved, I managed to create ads that – though a bit more conceptual – were still basically a soccer mom posing as an ad.  (Who cares that Twin Cities Federal supports the Vikings?? Seriously? Does anybody care?)

Think it through, people. If you go to the trouble to make an Olympic spot with a swimmer swimming or a gymnast gymming, congrats, you’ve created background wallpaper made out of stock images printed in invisible ink on Saran Wrap; flimsy, without substance, boring, completely non-existent, and a waste of money.

(“Honey! Get in here!! There’s a commercial that’s got Michael Phelps swimming in slow motion, determination in his eyes, and who knows where this commercial is goin’? Will it be about excellence? Teamwork? Man, it could be ANYTHING!!)

Nowadays I am of the opinion that saddling a commercial with some sports theme – particularly one every other sponsor is using – is essentially shrouding your client in full camo and face paint; breaking the oldest rule in the book, the zig-when-they-zag one.

But, hey, wait a minute.

Perhaps there is some kind of competition going on? One I don’t know about – a competition where companies compete to see if their covert Navy-Seal-of-a-commercial can make it into and then out of America’s living rooms without anyone noticing a thing. If so, damn!, you got me guys! These spots are in-fuckin’-visible.

Wow. Okay, now that I’m onto your game, I have another idea. For the next Winter Olympics, all the on-screen actors oughta wear those white gilli suits, you know, the kind those cool sniper guys wear? The dudes would be Totes Inviz.

Just make sure you cover up the brand name on the gilli suits or you could accidentally end up selling something.

• • • • • • • • • • • •

NOTE: Just got a reply from a reader named Deven Nongbri who said, “Hey, I disagree. I loved those P&G ‘Mom’ commercials, with the moms watching the memories of their little kids in those Olympic settings.” Deven is dead right. One point for Dev. Still, can I argue that the Mom spot is the exception that proves the rule? Or maybe, like I’ve often said, rules are made to be broken. In any case, one for the Devster.



  1. Luke, we worked together on a couple of Olympic-themed campaigns back in the day for that big phone company in Texas, and I thought the work the agency produced was pretty good – we actually sold stuff (100% correlation? no, but it didn’t detract from sales messaging, either).

    Of this year’s crop of Olympic-themed campaigns, the only spots (and Facebook and YouTube posts) that stood out were for P&G “Moms” campaign ( Memorable, emotional and relevant to what we were watching on TV and seeing online for two weeks.

    • Deven, you are dead right. Those Mom commercials for P&G were incredible. And they belonged in that venue. One point for Deven.

  2. I agree. However, I feel the need to say something nice for a couple of commercials that I think, as they say, “Stuck it.”

    This is my favorite of the the Olympic timeframe (if not a ‘sponsorship’ ad, per se) ad field (which is, no doubt, an actual category for an ad prize somewhere.) Here’s the link:

    It’s John Cleese hitting it hard for Directv. I’m going to give the agency and client credit for taking into account the location of the games and collective attentions and drafting it as savvily as (insert favorite racecar driver name here). The spots stand alone – they’d be fun whether the games were in London or Liberia, live or delayed.

    I’m sure this one – the anthemic P&G moms- was a sprint to strike on with a marathon to craft. And all I know is I’ve been around several moms who insist on being able to watch it with no horsing around.

    I think the common denominator for both of these is they have watchable and wait for it moments. They’re built to withstand the overwhelming weight of the ‘buy’ and they each manage to offer rewards beyond 2nd or 3rd viewing (not to mention the 20th or 33rd viewing.) It’s not just the ‘gillie suit’ it’s the ten tons of it.

    • Yep, no doubt there were some good ones. But I would lean towards saying the exceptions prove the rule. My $.02.

  3. Hey there,

    I appreciate your thoughts on the subject, and while I agree that I don’t care that W.B Mason is the official Office Supplier of the Philadelphia Phillies, I have to suggest that I wouldn’t know about them otherwise. Is there any sort of justification for spending (or dumping money in the toilet) just for the eyeballs?


    • Yes eyeballs are nice, but you’d have to think there are cheaper more targeted and relevant ways to get them? Just my $.02.

  4. So true! Nike got WAY more mileage by not being a sponsor – there “hero” spots were inspiring.

  5. For the most part, I think you’re right. Then again, most TV ads can be flushed down the toilet. Your point about the exceptions proving the rule is true in all areas of advertising. Here’s another exception to consider: the AT&T ad that ran “right after” Rebecca Soni broke her own one-day old world record in which a girl watches the race on her phone and then writes down the official time as her goal.

    The LA Times wrote a nice piece on it,0,4173019.story

    I think some of the ads you’re touching on may be some of the same ones the article mentions. The magic isn’t so much in the production, but more in the “how the hell did they do that so fast?” This trend of “real time” advertising as the article dubs it is sure to wear thin, but for now it’s still pretty cool. I remember the first time I paid attention to it was when Emmitt Smith scored a touchdown in the Super Bowl and within a matter of minutes, his TD run was a Reebok commercial. I think it was Reebok anyway.

    On the opposite side of the coin, it was mentioned earlier that Nike got a lot of mileage out of not being a sponsor, but so did Hostess of all brands. Seen this? Good stuff.

    • Hey Dave: Thanks for the links. I saw that AT&T spot too and liked it more as an ad person than a consumer. Thought it was cool how they did it so fast.

  6. I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme. Did you create this website yourself or did you hire someone to do it for you? Plz reply as I’m looking to create my own blog and would like to find out where u got this from. appreciate it

    • Just sorta made it myself using WordPress. It’s free.



  1. Republicans Buy Shoes » Podcast: Episode 3 - [...] CurlTag: 180LA, BBDO NY, Foot Locker, NBA, OlympicsComment: Brandon and Andrew talk about a recent Luke Sullivan blog post…

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Luke Sullivan

Author, speaker, and ad veteran available to recharge, reinvigorate, and refocus marketing, advertising, and branding firms.

I give a hugely energetic series of presentations on innovation, creativity, branding, and marketing. I spent 32 years in the trenches of advertising (at agencies like Martin, GSD&M, and Fallon) and I’ve put everything I learned into my book, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. But for me nothing beats taking the message out and speaking to living breathing audiences at clients, agencies, and conferences. You can book me on the button below.