Ambush marketing and the Rio Olympics

The Rio Olympics provides sponsors and brands unparalleled marketing opportunities – and infringement minefields. When it comes to the Olympics, marketing is never business as usual, as lawyer Stephen von Muenster explains.

As Brazil prepares to host the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio de Janiero, the Brazilian Congress has been busy attempting to protect the valuable intellectual property surrounding the Rio Olympics by enacting specific legislation in an effort to curb ambush marketing attempts, and unlawful associations by brands, which inevitably occurs during large scale sporting events.

As is our usual advice around this time, agencies and brands need to consider the legal risks of associating a brand with the Olympics where the brand is not an official sponsor or licensee, particularly given the level of investment by official Olympic sponsors to gain an exclusive category right of association with the Games.

Using the Olympic brand is not only regulated by the usual legal protections such as the Australian Consumer Law, copyright, and trade mark law, but also by legislation specific to the Olympics generally, all of which needs to be considered if any degree of unofficial association is to be made.Rio Olympics official logo

  1. Specific Brazilian Olympics Legislation

Soon after Rio de Janiero was chosen to host the 2016 Games, Brazil enacted special legislation to protect additional symbols and expressions specific to the Rio Olympics in The Olympic Act (Law 12,035/09 of October 1, 2009).

Under this legislation, Brazilian authorities are responsible for monitoring, investigating and suppressing any unlawful acts that violate the rights in the Olympic symbols, which are defined as:

  1. All graphically distinctive signs, flags, mottos, emblems, and anthems used by the International Olympic Committee;
  1. The names “Olympic Games,” “Paralympic Games,” “Rio 2016 Olympic Games,” “Rio 2016 Paralympic Games,” “XXXI Olympic Games,” “Rio 2016,” “Rio Olympics,” “Rio 2016 Olympics,” “Rio Paralympics,” “Rio 2016 Paralympics” and other abbreviations and variations, and also those equally relevant that may be created for the same purposes, in any language, including those in connection with websites;
  1. The name, emblem, flag, anthem, motto, and trademarks and other symbols of the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee; and
  1. The mascots, trademarks, torches and other symbols in connection with the XXXI Olympic Games, Rio 2016 Olympic Games, and Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

The legislation makes it clear that an unlawful act may include use of the above symbols even if the use is not for a commercial purpose.

Furthermore, the legislation seeks to expressly curtail ambush marketing practices by prohibiting the use of expressions and symbols which are ‘sufficiently similar’ to the symbols listed above, to the extent that the sufficiently similar symbol is “able to invoke an undue association of any products and services whatsoever, or even any company, transaction or event with the Rio 2016 Games and Olympic Movement”.

It is unlikely that this Brazilian legislation will have an extraterritorial effect in Australia and therefore would not influence or restrict local Australian marketing campaigns.

However, following the Australian High Court’s decision in Dow Jones & Company Inc v Gutnick [2002] HCA 56, infringing materials conducted via the internet or other digital technology have the possibility of attracting “global liability” whereby advertisers and brands may be subject to the laws of Australia, even if the infringing material is uploaded overseas.

It is possible that the courts of Brazil would take a similar approach, given the global nature of the internet.

Therefore, if an online or social media campaign is uploaded to the Internet by an Australian brand, and is able to be viewed or downloaded in Brazil, there is the possibility that legitimate rights holders may be able to take action in Brazil against an Australian campaign which allegedly infringes the Brazilian legislation, regardless of the fact that the campaign is not being conducted from Brazil or targeted at Brazilian nationals. Brazil and Australian flags Olympics

The mere fact that individuals in Brazil can view the material may be sufficient.

Of course, the Brazilian authorities would need to attempt to enforce any judgment in Australia, which raises complex questions under International law and treaties, which is beyond the scope of this article. However, the risks remains.

Australian Position

In Australia, the Olympic Insignia Protection Act 1987 (Cth) regulates the commercial use of certain Olympic expressions. Any advertising or promotional campaigns where the brand featured is not a licensed user must steer clear of words such as “Olympics”, “Olympic Games” and “Olympiads” (or any words closely resembling these) in order to avoid infringing the legislation. The Olympic motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger” and its five ring symbol are also protected under this act.

In addition, the Major Sporting Events (Indicia and Images) Protection Act 2015 (Cth) offers specific protection to the organisers and sponsors of major Australian Pacific sporting events, including the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup 2015, the International Cricket Council (ICC) Cricket World Cup 2015, and the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games.

Whilst the explanatory memorandum of the Bill indicated that there was potential for the scope of the Bill to be widened to account for future major events, at this time, this act does not provide specific protections in relation to the Rio Olympics in an Australian context.

As indicated below, there are existing protections in Australian law which protect the commercial rights of Olympic organisers and official sponsors.

  1. Australian Consumer Law – misleading or deceptive conduct

Even if you do not use any Olympic and specific Rio Olympics insignia and symbols, the Australian Consumer Law prohibits the making of false representations of association, affiliation, endorsement, sponsorship or a similar relationship with the Rio Olympics where in fact no such relationship exists.

Pursuant to the Australian Consumer Law (embodied in Schedule 2 of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (Cth), any marketing activity that falsely or misleadingly suggests, or implies an association, sponsorship, or affiliation between a brand and an event may constitute misleading or deceptive conduct (section 18) and/or contain false or misleading representations (section 29).

However, the distinction must be made between, on the one hand, a marketing activity that indirectly implies an affiliation with an event, which may only lead a consumer to wonder about the association, or call to mind the Olympics and related sports generally, which may not give rise to a cause of action under the Australian Consumer Law, and on the other hand, a marketing activity that makes direct and misleading claims of association with an event, leading a consumer into error which may result in deception or a misrepresentation under the Australian Consumer Law.

Additionally, ambush marketing may be actionable under the common law action of passing off if it causes damage to the reputation or goodwill of an official sponsor or supplier to an event, or wrongful appropriation in the sense of causing potential customers to associate the product or business of an official sponsor or supplier with that of the marketed brand where no such connection exists.

For example, during the 2012 London Olympics, a TVC for Australian Mining featuring Olympic cyclist Anna Meares was pulled after the Australian Olympic Committee claimed it was in breach of advertising guidelines aimed at protecting official sponsorsAnna Meares Olympic campaign ad

The TVC showed Meares in cycling gear featuring sporting sponsor BHP Billiton’s logo (a rival to official Australian team sponsor Rio Tinto) while she spoke about her Olympic hopes in London.

Generally speaking, if an advertisement for running shoes was created accompanied with the caption “Helping Athletes Win”, this would most likely not be considered sufficient to suggest an association with the Games in breach of the law.

However, a promotional product bearing the colours of the Olympic rings as well as athletic imagery arguably raises consumer law concerns.

  1. Copyright and Trade Mark Infringement

The logos, fonts and imagery utilised by the Rio Olympics are protected by a combination of copyright and trademark registrations in addition to the legislation enacted in Brazil, mentioned above.

Reproducing a trademark or logo, or adopting the official font in marketing material will likely amount to an infringement of these legal areas, and any use of the Olympic brand assets should be strictly avoided unless permission (likely by way of a license) has been obtained for the specific intended use.


Whilst Olympic fever is contagious, the side effects of unauthorised association are legally risky and potentially costly for both agencies and brands. Agencies should be prudent and cautious when deciding whether to conduct an Olympic-themed or associated campaign, and should avoid any use of the Olympic names and its highly valuable brand assets.

It is important not to rely on the assumption that any use will go unnoticed, as the Olympic Committee and official sponsors keep a watchful eye on those seeking to ambush the event and to protect the investment.

It is useful to note that if an agency and brand is attempting to associate with the spirit of the Olympics whilst not crossing the legal line, each particular communication must be considered on its own merits having regard to the dominant impression of the communication or advertisement, the context, and the media on which it will be promoted or advertised, as this will have an effect on the legal outcome.

We recommend that any marketing campaigns that could involve any Olympic association, particularly ones which ‘sail close to the wind’ be subject to legal clearance.

This article, originally titled ‘When my customer smiles at me…I go to Rio’: Ambush Marketing and the Rio Olympics first appeared here

Authors Stephen von Muenster, Principal and Natalie Zwar, solicitor at von Muenster Solicitors & Attorneys


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