Olympics 2012: Ambush marketing can only be stopped by gagging us all

It's going to be hard to say anything at all once the IOC have their way.

Ambush marketing news! Nike, the athletics company which is not an Olympic sponsor (and is basically mortal enemies with actual Olympic sponsor Adidas), really wants you to think it's an Olympic sponsor. So they are going to be running an ad campaign timed to coincide with the beginning of the games under the tagline "find your greatness". The ad, which features amateur athletes competing around the world in places which just so happen to be named London, may remind you of a certain summer sporting jambouree, but it doesn't infringe on any actual trademarks.

Take a look yourself:

This sort of ad is going to take over the airwaves – and most other mediums – for the next two weeks. Coming in to work on the tube, of the five ads visible from where I was uncomfortably sweltering, three were Olympics themed, but only one was actually official (exhorting Londoners to "get behind the games"). The other two were one advertising language teaching software based around the idea of speaking all the languages of the sporting world, and the other was for a gym with a shot of athletes on a running track and some encouragement to get in shape for the summer.

The IOC would consider this ambush marketing. They have spent a lot of time and money ensuring that the only way you can use Olympic-mania is by paying them exhorbitant sums of money to become a sponsor. Even if you don't actually want to use Olympic-mania at all – say, you just happen to run the Cafe Olympic, and have done since 1995 – they'll still shut you down if they have the power to.

Their power really is very broad. Anything using a combination of words from groups one and two, for instance, infringes on their branding:

(3) The following expressions form the first group for the purposes of sub-paragraph (2)— (a) “games”, (b) “Two Thousand and Twelve”, (c) “2012”, and (d) “twenty twelve”.

(4) The following expressions form the second group for the purposes of sub-paragraph (2)— (a) gold, (b) silver, (c) bronze, (d) London, (e) medals, (f) sponsor, and (g) summer.

So don't go advertising your shop's "summer 2012" sale, or LOCOG may have words.

But the real problem is that ambush marketing is an arms race where our speech is the battlefield. At the World Cup in Frankfurt, Nike projected ads onto nearby buildings – so London 2012 implements no ad zones, like the one shown in this map (pdf) for Greenwich Park. At the World Cup in South Africa, a dutch brewery pays for women to arrive wearing orange t-shirts – their corporate colour – and is fined for it. Now that the arms race has left the venues and is heading to the TV screens and transport networks, how will the IOC respond?

Either they monopolise the word "sport" and images of athletes, or they accept that, no matter what control they have inside the stadium, once people leave, they are free to say what they want.

A gagged statue during the Athens Olympics. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Lord Geoffrey Howe dies, age 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.