Rugby World Cup 2019: Ambush Marketing and the Law

Can I use the Rugby World Cup logo in my marketing?

I like rugby. I also like legal issues regarding intellectual property rights and advertising. 

As with all major sporting events the Rugby World Cup inevitably stirs excitement in the marketing and advertising world, with industry experts wanting to use the opportunity to increase business exposure, with many prepared to utilise both authorised, and unauthorised, methods to get ahead of competitors.

What is ambush marketing?

In a nutshell, ambush marketing is where a party (usually a business) tries to link itself with a major event so as to benefit from the goodwill or prestige of that event. This is done without paying for the privilege of being an official sponsor. The benefit for the ambushing business, and the issue for the event organiser, is that consumers then associate the event with the third-party non-sponsors, rather than with the official sponsors (who will have paid ££££££ for the privilege). This risks damaging the value of the authorised advertising rights.

Whilst forms of ambush marketing has been going on forever (probably), it was at the 2010 FIFA World Cup and during the London 2012 Olympic Games where it significantly hit the headlines in the UK.

Examples of ambush marketing

Some classic examples of ambush marketing include:

At the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Dutch brewer Bavaria hit the headlines when 36 orange clad women were ejected from Soccer City and two were arrested, for trying to create a benefit for Bavaria from an event without paying for advertising. The Dutch models snuck into the stadium dressed as Danish fans before revealing their colours. The pundit, Robbie Earle, who had provided the tickets was fired as a result. Walkers’ World Cup of Flavours, Pepsi’s “Oh Africa”, and KitKat’s “Cross your fingers” campaigns also caused a stir in 2010.     

Prior to 2010, Nike famously carried out an ambush marketing campaign at the 1996 Olympic Games by covering Atlanta in billboards advertising its brand and buying a building overlooking the Olympic village, which it converted into a Nike centre (complete with massive external branding). Nike also distributed banners printed with their logo, in the hope that television shots of the crowd in the stadium waving Nike banners might give the impression that Nike was an official sponsor of the Games. Clever stuff.

Nike was on the receiving end of an ambush marketing exercise when it was the official clothing supplier for the Australian Olympic team at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. Ian Thorpe, the retired swimmer, who was sponsored by adidas, draped his towel over the Nike logo on his official team tracksuit at his gold medal award ceremony. Nike shouldn’t really complain as they allegedly used similar tactics at the 1992 Barcelona Games against Reebok when Michael Jordan (famous basketball player and Space Jam hero) avoided displaying the Reebok logo on his official Olympic tracksuit.

More recently, Paddy Power, the ambush marketing masters, made a bid for ambush glory during the London 2012 Olympic Games. The bookmaker achieved significant media coverage with a mischievous billboard campaign describing itself as “Official sponsor of the largest athletics event in London this year! There you go, we said it. (Ahem, London France that is)”. They’d actually sponsored a slightly lower key event (egg-and-spoon race) in a town called London… in France.

During the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Rio came the rise of the social media ambush tactics. Spec Savers famously posted a joke about Louis Suarez biting the shoulder of Giorgio Chiellini (Chiellini / Cannelloni, should’ve gone to a certain optician – get it?).

During Rugby World Cup 2015, England sponsors O2 were unable to give away tickets, so they gave away 50,000 branded t-shirts to fans to wear while cheering on England instead as part of their “wear the rose” campaign. They also lit up the Millennium Dome in fairly spectacular fashion. Slightly less successful was power company SSE’s attempt to hand out branded megaphones outside of the stadium, but they were confiscated by security.

What is the UK law on ambush marketing?

There is no single law to protect against ambush marketing in the UK except in relation to the London 2012 Olympic Games and the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Scotland.

However, intellectual property rights (IPRs) may assist, depending on the specific circumstances, although ambush marketing is often a more subtle activity than most IPRs are equipped to deal with effectively. The main IPRs that might come into play are:

  • Trade marks.
  • Copyright.
  • Design rights.
  • Passing off.

For example, organizers of the Rugby World Cup 2015 sought to protect against ambush marketers by utilising intellectual property rights. Event organizers held registered rights in relation to a number of Rugby World Cup marks including: Rugby World Cup, RWC 2015, Rugby World Cup 2015, England 2015 and so on. Non-official corporations attempting to use these registered trade marks risked being involved in expensive infringement court proceedings.

Things to avoid

If you are considering launching a campaign linked to Rugby World Cup 2019, then in addition to avoiding use of any registered or unregistered trade marks, it is important not to be seen to mislead people into believing that your business is associated with the event or a specific team if it is not.

Generally speaking, it is worth considering the following to avoid being too close to the knuckle so far as the official parties are concerned: if a member of the public were to look at your proposed advert, and then expect to see an official sponsor logo (because the connection made to the event is blatant) then you have probably crossed the line! If however there is only a “nod” towards the event, such as simply choosing a rugby or a Japanese theme for example, then the risk becomes considerably less. The more links the more risk. If your advert uses rugby, a well-known ex-international player or two, and a Japanese theme; you may well be at risk!  

If you are not working on an official advertising campaign linked to Rugby World Cup 2019 you should avoid using any official logos or images, avoid advertising which is too closely linked to the official avenues, and even avoid using official Rugby World Cup tickets, in promotional events. RWC and World Rugby do provide guidance on their websites on how media outlets may use their logos, and it is fairly clear.

Remember: social media is advertising too! Too much Tweeting of the official logo or hashtag could well land an unauthorised business in hot water. 

Before you embark on any advertising campaigns surrounding sports events, make sure you take proper legal advice and check the official bodies’ guidance. Nothing in the above article should be construed or relied upon as legal advice. Ben Ironmonger is a commercial solicitor at Scott Bailey LLP and has a wealth of experience in advising clients on their intellectual property legal matters. Contact Ben to learn more about how an intellectual property audit could help your business.