The growing threat of ambush marketing

The battle for telecommunications market share in the Caribbean between LIME and Digicel entered the realm of sports recently in Jamaica, demonstrating a good example of a controversial tactic sometimes known as ambush marketing.  

The incident in Jamaica took place on the final day of the ISSA-GraceKennedy Boys and Girls Athletic Championships track meet – often referred to simply as “Champs” – when, after winning the 200-meter final, high school track star Michael O’Hara lifted his team jersey to reveal a red and green undershirt printed with the words “Be Extraordinary,” Digicel’s tagline.  

That same day, Digicel announced that O’Hara had signed as its newest brand ambassador. The tactic infuriated Digicel’s competitor, LIME, which had paid to be an official sponsor of the prestigious track meet. 

As the Cayman Islands continues to focus on sports tourism and attracts higher profile events such as football, volleyball, squash and rugby, the threat of similar kinds of ambush marketing here increases, as does the possible need to have some sort of legal mechanism to thwart it.  

In the lead-up to the 2007 International Cricket Council World Cup, attorney Derek Jones, now a partner with the HSM Chambers law firm, served on secondment as the senior counsel with responsibility for education and enforcement of sponsorship rights in the nine Caribbean countries that hosted either warm-up or tournament matches.  

“I conducted education throughout the Caribbean,” he said. 

Because businesses spent a lot of money to become official sponsors of the Cricket World Cup, and part of the prerequisite for hosting the tournament was giving those businesses legal protection for the exclusivity of their sponsorship, it was necessary for all participating jurisdictions to pass short-term legislation making ambush marketing a crime during the duration of the World Cup.  

The legislation, which Jones helped craft, gave the International Cricket Council complete control of the stadium venues of the matches, with the exception of crime enforcement.  

Ambush marketing, Jones said, can come in several forms. 

“At the heart of it is communicating the impression that you have something to do with the event,” he said, noting that sponsors often spend significant money to have their branding associated with events.

“If you are able to ambush an event, you are able to get a lot of exposure for nothing, and the sponsors go crazy.” 


Creative examples  

Sometimes ambush marking is subtle; other times it can be blatant. Oftentimes the ambush is quite clever and doesn’t break any laws. 

Jones was able to give several examples of ambush marketing:  

Evian is the official water of the Wimbledon tennis tournament, but a competitor had people outside the stadium handing out free bottles of its water to spectators as they entered. The cost of giving away free water to attendees was much less than Evian paid to sponsor Wimbledon.  

At the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, Linford Christie, the defending 100-meter champion, appeared at a press conference wearing blue contact lenses with the Puma logo clearly visible in the center of each eye, even though Reebok was the official athletic footwear sponsor of the Games.  

A beer company came up with an advertisement that said it was the official beer of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, but in a handwriting-like font, put “un” in front of the word official. That advertisement might have withstood the legality test had the company not put a picture of the World Cup trophy on the advertisement. “That’s how they got them,” Jones said. 

In a stunt engineered by the Dutch beer brand Bavaria during a 2010 FIFA World Cup match in South Africa, a group of 36 attractive, blonde females were all sitting together wearing orange (the Dutch national color) mini-dresses which bore a small logo. The women were ejected from the stadium and arrested for contravention of the Merchandise Marks Act, which prevents companies from benefiting from an event without paying for advertising. The official sponsor was Budweiser. 

Jones said that in many cases, large events could not take place without sponsors, and when businesses sponsor an event, they want to be assured that the organizers protect their exclusivity so they get maximum value for their investment, especially at big events. 

“There’s enormous bucks at stake,” he said.”It is impossible to host any of these mega-events without money from sponsors.” 


Cayman context  

Bringing the discussion into a Cayman Islands context, Jones said most big events – sporting and otherwise – have sponsors, and often competitors to the sponsors have some sort of presence at events.  

“At an event like Batabano, both LIME and Digicel hand out rags, handkerchiefs, whistles or something,” he said. “There’s no legislation that prevents it.” 

In some cases, ambush marketing inside a particular venue can be controlled by the terms printed on the back of a ticket, but that only applies to events that take place inside a closed-in venue and to ambush marketing that takes place inside the venue.  

Although the events held in Cayman are on a much smaller scale than World Cup or Olympic events, with the country’s connection to CONCACAF and other initiatives bringing more and bigger sporting event here, doing something about ambush marketing could become necessary. 

“It’s going to become more and more important from a Cayman context,” he said.  

However, Jones acknowledges that governments in free-market countries are very hesitant to enact legislation outlawing ambush marketing.  

“The argument is that you’re stifling free trade.” 

One compromise has been sunset legislation, a type of ad hoc legislation created for a specific event, that has an ending – or sunset – date built in that corresponds with the conclusion of the event.  

Such legislation could easily be re-enacted for short terms if another event requires it, making adjustments to the legislation to account for new technologies.  

When the cost to sponsor certain events reaches significant levels, Jones thinks Cayman will need to enact legislation if those kinds of events are to take place.  

“The guy who puts up $50,000 to sponsor a track meet, he wants coverage for his product and I can’t blame him,” he said. 


Budweiser was the official beer sponsor of the 2010 World Cup match in South Africa featuring the Netherlands vs. Denmark, but Bavaria beer dressed up a group of women in orange (the Dutch national color) in a classic ‘ambush marketing’ effort.


At the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, PUMA causes a stir with a creative contact lens campaign: at a press conference prior to the Games when track star Linford Christie appeared with a white PUMA cat logo on his pupils. – Photo: Puma


Derek Jones