Shuttlecocks + Controversy = Happy Advertisers
This Olympics-focused editorial series is written by Ronald Urbach, Chairman of law firm Davis & Gilbert LLP and the co-chair of the Advertising, Marketing & Promotions Practice Group at the firm.
I don't know about you, but the last time I played badminton was when I was on summer vacation with my kids. We bought the kit at the local hardware store, set it up on the grass and started playing. As we played, not only did we have fun, we got better. This stimulated me to learn a little more about the game: the little birdie thing that we were hitting was called a shuttlecock, and the game itself had been started by bored British military officers in 18th century India.
What does my summer vacation game have to do with the Olympics, advertisers, and agencies? Well, thanks to the South Korean, Indonesian, and Chinese Olympic badminton teams, I now know that badminton is an Olympic sport and has been since 1992. Eight Olympic badminton players from these countries threw their games - in other words, they intentionally tried to lose. Was this a Black Sox Scandal? No. No one was bribed and no one was betting on the matches hoping to personally profit from their actions. What happened was they wanted to lose so that they would face an easier opponent in the later rounds of the competition. Call it strategic losing. Go to YouTube and watch one of the matches - the entire stadium audience recognized what was happening and boos rained down on the athletes. It was bizarre.
The good news is that honor and sport won out over winning (or losing) at all costs. The athletes were disqualified. The WBF - World Badminton Federation - apologized. All seemed right in the land of shuttlecocks and racquets.
But that is not the only event that strained incredulity. How about the 16-year-old Chinese swimmer, Ye Shiwen, who won a gold medal in the women's 400 meter individual medley? The Chinese swim team has great competitors so one of their swimmers winning a gold medal is not startling. But in the gold medal race, her final 50-meter swim time was faster than that of Ryan Lochte's Olympic championship performance in the same event for men.
There are some who say - this can only be another case of doping and drugs. Others tell men to get over it, and ask why are men so smug to think that a woman cannot beat a man in swimming? Well, I do not have an answer other than history shows that there may be some reason to be concerned. There is one fact that is undisputed: there is a controversy.
What do these two seemingly unrelated events have in common? Smiles on Madison Avenue and at 30 Rock. I am not suggesting that advertisers and agencies, or NBC and Comcast, are pleased about competitors violating the rules or alleged cheating. But, there is nothing like a little gossip, a little drama, and a little intrigue. Going in to the Games, the media and the advertising industry's worst fear was a boring Olympics. Thanks to shuttlecocks and swimming, it looks like the London Games will certainly not be boring.
Yesterday, Comcast and NBC told market analysts that it now appears that with viewership way up, the Olympics will not be a money loser. In other words, Comcast/NBC will either break even or make money. That's a good thing for NBC all around. It even has a direct benefit on other NBC programming, like the Today Show.
More viewers means advertisers and agencies are happy. All those dollars spent on media and production costs, and all those dollars spent on sponsorships, look like they are going to pay off. CMOs around the world are breathing a sigh of relief.
There is a fine line between titillation and a scandal. No one wants the Games to be overwhelmed by a scandal that drowns out the athletes, the events, the hard work, and the true sport. In fact, we have seen plenty of that and great human interest stories from Michael Phelps to the Fab 5 to Gabby Douglas and many more.
But we live in a world of Entertainment Tonight, TMZ, and reality television. We are unfortunately focused on the next celebrity train wreck more than the important issues of the day. So for the advertising industry and NBC, a little bit of the dark side is not a bad thing; it can get (and apparently has got) the audience pumped. Let's hope they stay tuned for Week 2.
Ronald Urbach is the Chairman of law firm Davis & Gilbert LLP and the co-chair of the Advertising, Marketing & Promotions Practice Group at the firm. His clients include numerous multinational, national, and regional advertising agencies, including those agencies that are viewed as being the top creative agencies in the world. Ron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.