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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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.