How the Pandemic Affected Advertising During the Olympics

Tokyo Olympics logo NBC

As one of the biggest global sports events, the Olympic Games is the crown jewel of advertising for the world’s biggest brands. With 4 billion average viewers, the Olympics provide not only a huge platform for brands, but they always include a riveting story arc by way of key athletes in play. In the midst of the ongoing global pandemic — and the year-long delay that occurred as a result — brands had the unique task of managing the economic fallout of the postponement, as well as the implications of the Games continuing in a COVID-ridden Tokyo. Here’s how ad campaigns played out in the scope of the U.S. market, as well as on the global stage, and what brands can learn from these strategies for future sports advertising.

How Rescheduling the Olympics Affected Advertisers

While other sports marketing bounced back relatively easily, with an abridged 2020 MLB season and the playoffs bubble for the NBA, the Olympics’ year-long postponement posed a tougher challenge for advertisers. Sponsorships and activations for this iconic event are planned years in advance, with major storyline focus on the would-be stars of the U.S. Olympic Team. For smaller brands that took a relatively large financial leap with a $10,000 sponsorship for a single athlete, the pandemic delay meant that, for some, this investment may not have come to fruition for these Games.

Despite the financial implications that the delay presented, more than 120 advertisers invested in Olympics advertising for the 2021 Games. This group included 80 first-time advertisers, a 20% increase from Rio in 2016. Additionally, 15 global partners, including Coca-Cola, P&G, Toyota, Visa, and more, paid a record $3.3 billion to participate in advertising this year — more than double the ad spend than the last Summer Games. This increase was likely a direct result of the pandemic, with the COVID postponement motivating these major players to invest more in the first global sporting event since the pandemic began.

What Banning Spectators in Tokyo Meant for Advertisers

Awareness of Global Opinion of the Games

As the state of emergency in Japan escalated in the days leading up to the Games, advertisers were wary of the global implications of supporting the event. In the host country, roughly 83% of people were against the Olympics going on as planned, as vaccinations rates remained low and COVID-19 cases skyrocketed. Japanese automaker, Toyota, even announced just days before the Opening Ceremony that it would pull all Olympics advertising from Japanese television to address public sentiment in the country. While the situation in the States is vastly different, with 57% of U.S. adults fully vaccinated and many COVID restrictions lifted, brands should continue to acknowledge the effect of the pandemic on the global population, even in their U.S. advertising strategies.

Production Shift to the States

During a “normal” Olympics, official sponsors  have brand activations in the Olympic Village and host city to interact with athletes and fans alike. Visa, for example, planned to have a TV campaign with star athletes, like Simone Biles, to promote the touchless payment options they would have had throughout Tokyo. With fans staying home this year due to Tokyo’s outbreak, production teams from brands and broadcasters alike shifted their focus back home.

According to Gary Zenkel, President of NBC Olympics, 10% less manpower was stationed in Tokyo than in years past, with those numbers shifted stateside. Likewise, brands are shifting their advertising remotely as well, focusing on TV, digital, and OTT landscapes to capture viewers. While the TV campaign for Visa continued as planned, the brand will aim for a more long-term strategy — as Team Visa will be the official touchless payment option for the Olympics until 2032.

Athlete Storylines

The foundation of any Olympic ad campaign hinges on the athletes’ stories. That crucial connection between the storytellers and the athletes was more important than ever with the Olympic stadiums empty, and the road to Tokyo carried more interest in the games since fanfare was omitted.

Carrying the adversity of the past year with them to the games, athletes’ training stories during COVID were certainly in play for Olympic advertisers. For some athletes, like U.S. Women’s Olympic gymnast Jordan Chiles, the additional year of training is what converted her from Olympic hopeful to Olympian. Capturing these stories of triumph are crucial to networks and brands alike, as they provide relatable scope to the athletes’ pursuits. As always, the journey to the host city is often as important as the history that unfolds during the contest, and with the planning that goes into ad campaigns of this scale, brands rely on these storylines to carry their campaigns during the Olympics.

Family support and involvement also plays significantly into Olympics coverage and advertising. P&G’s “Thank You Mom” campaign at the past few games is a prime example of harnessing these stories in a meaningful way by showing the journey as a family to this global stage.

Since families were not permitted to travel to the Games with the Olympians this year, NBC is used a “Friends and Family” production unit to capture the same enthusiasm and support that would typically occur in the stands. Instead of panning to cheering parents in the audience, they cut to the family back home in their living rooms, cheering on their loved ones from their couch. As a result, brands still drove home these family-oriented campaigns through ad spots that applied to the event of their sponsored athletes.

Beyond the personal stories of Olympians, and in the wake of 2020, athletes had a greater understanding of the power of their platform. With the political upheaval of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and the 2020 Election cycle, many of the U.S. Team’s stars spoke on issues that mattered to them, and they expected their sponsors to stand with them. This activism also speaks to the younger Gen-Z audience, which noted that 50% would be more interested in following the Olympics if athletes used their platform to stand up for a cause. However, the decision to use their voice to spread a message often comes with controversy. US Soccer star, Megan Rapinoe, for example, kneeled during the national anthem ahead of an Olympic match, causing public outcry. As a result, nearly 45% of U.S. consumers say Subway should respect public sentiment and drop Megan Rapinoe as a brand ambassador.

As the Olympics always strive to have a sense of neutrality and unification, brands worked hard to follow these activist storylines with nuance, both understanding the power their athletes’ voices wield while maintaining the overall mission of this global event.

From major sporting events to local activations, NYI’s Audience One platform helps brands bring their stories to the New York market. Driven by powerful targeting and data attribution, campaigns can capture audiences exactly where they’re watching. For more information about how NYI can help your brand advertise smarter, visit our Solutions page.