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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