Tom English: Olympic brand police top the meddle table

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LISTENING to Radio 5 Live last Sunday evening the realisation dawned on me that my five-year-son and nine-year-old daughter might be about to commit a crime against the London Olympics. There is a chance they may soon be complicit in the breaking of an act of Parliament by drawing a design of an Olympic T-shirt as part of their primary school homework.

Their design had the usual symbols – the torch and the rings with the words London 2012 featuring prominently along with their own school crest. In celebration of the Olympic flame being paraded through the streets of our town, there is a suggestion that the winning design might be made into a real T-shirt for the parents to buy and for the kids to wear as they cheer the torch-bearer on his or her merry way.

This, should it come to pass, is, believe it or not, almost certainly illegal. There is an act of Parliament stopping this kind of thing happening. It’s called the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006 and through its “no marketing rights protocol” it offers protection, by law, of the Olympic brand, forbidding reproduction of the famous rings and the torch but also outlawing the use of things that might refer to the Olympics like the year 2012 and the London skyline and gold and silver medals and any manner of other things. If you use any of those items on a T-shirt or a poster or anything that is likely to make money, no matter how small or how far removed you are from London, then you are, technically speaking, committing an offence.

But, hey, not to worry, because as taxpayers we’re only coughing-up £9 billion to stage the Olympics. What do you expect for £9bn? The freedom to use the rings on a cake in your village fayre? The right to have a replica torch on your kid’s school T-shirt? Get out of here!

The back story to this is the Atlanta Games of 1996 when one of the main sponsors, Adidas, was ambushed by its rival Nike, who bought up many billboard spots around the host venues and made it look like they were officially on-board when, in fact, they had contributed nothing compared to Adidas’s tens of millions of dollars. That wasn’t ever going to happen again and that’s fair enough.

Ambush marketing is a feature of all global sporting events these days and the act of Parliament was set up with the protection of the keynote sponsors in mind. Nothing wrong with that. If major corporations are shelling out millions then they deserve a free run at the Games. But the act is incredibly far-reaching and it goes well beyond the normal copyright and trademark protection. It is now being used in the most petty ways by the brand police.

The 5 Live Investigates programme cited a number of examples. There’s a butcher in Weymouth, for example, who was warned about his window display by an Olympic Big Brother. He did a design of the Olympic rings made of sausages with 2012 written underneath. He was told he wasn’t allowed, so he changed the rings to squares and 2012 to 2013, but still LOCOG (London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games) weren’t happy.

Another case involved the British Sugar Craft Guild International Exhibition in Shropshire. It’s a competition for the world’s best cake decorators and they decided this year’s event would take an Olympic theme, but they were warned they’d be in breach of the “no marketing protocol” so the theme had to be abandoned.

The case studies are piling up. New London Architecture is a not-for-profit organisation that showcases the best of British architecture. They wanted to host an exhibition showing the brilliant work that has been done by architects and engineers involved in the Olympics but were told they couldn’t. Not only could they not host it but they weren’t allowed to talk to any architects or engineers involved in the work until the Olympics are over. So the exhibition was shelved.

Somebody has come up with a new word: Olympicrosy. And another: Olympicnic. A small village in Surrey planned to host a big outdoor event on the local common and wanted to call it an Olympicnic, but they were banned from using the word. Too much like Olympics, you see. Can’t have it.

Quite honestly, I hope my kids’ school goes ahead and produces those T-shirts and I also hope the brand police turn up at break-time to stop them wearing them. You want to talk about the thrill of a 100m final? It would be nothing to the Olympic spectacle of hundreds of logoed children chasing the suits down the street and all the way back to their corporate world. Now that is something I would pay to see. Gold medals all round.