The Olympics have long been an almost ideal forum for companies looking to promote themselves, with plenty of opportunities for brands to nestle ads among the pageantry and feel-good stories of athletes overcoming adversity — all for less than the price of a Super Bowl -commercial.
But with some 11,000 competitors from more than 200 countries gathering in Tokyo as the coronavirus pandemic continues, Olympic advertisers are concerned about the more than $1 billion they’ve spent running ads on NBC and its Peacock streaming platform.
Calls to cancel the more than $15.4 billion extravaganza have intensified as more athletes test positive for Covid-19. The event is also highly unpopular with Japanese citizens and many public health experts, who fear a super-spreading event. And there will be no spectators in the stands.
“The Olympics are already damaged goods,” said Jules Boykoff, a former Olympic soccer player and an expert in sports politics at Pacific University. “If this situation in Japan moves south quickly, we could see some whiplashes in the way deals are being made and the willingness of multinational companies to get involved.”
Panasonic, a top sponsor, will not send its chief executive to the opening ceremony, which is scheduled for Friday. Nor will Toyota, one of Japan’s most influential companies, deal a blow to the Games on Monday when it said it had abandoned its plans to run Olympic-themed TV commercials in Japan.
In the United States, the marketing plans are largely moving forward.
For NBCUniversal, which has paid billions of dollars for the exclusive rights to broadcast the Olympics in the United States until 2032, the event is a critical source of revenue. There are more than 140 sponsors for NBC’s coverage on television, on the year-old streaming platform Peacock and online, up from the 100 who signed up for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“Not being there with an audience of this size and scale for some of our blue-chip advertisers is not an option,” said Jeremy Carey, the director of sports marketing agency Optimum Sports.
In a Michelob Ultra commercial, sprinter Usain Bolt points joggers to a bar. Procter & Gamble’s campaign highlights benefactor athletes and their parents. Sue Bird, a basketball star, is promoting fitness equipment maker Tonal in a spot debuting Friday.
Chris Brandt, Chipotle’s chief marketing officer, said the situation was “not ideal,” but the company still planned to run a campaign that featured profiles of Olympic athletes.
“We think people will continue to tune in, even without fans, as they did for all sorts of other sports,” said Mr. Brandt. “It will be a diminishing factor in terms of excitement, but we also hope that the Olympics will be a bit of a unity at a time when the country seems to be so divided every day.”
NBCUniversal said it had surpassed the $1.2 billion in US ad revenue it collected for the 2016 Games in Rio and sold all of its ad spaces before Friday’s opening ceremony, adding that it still offered space during the remainder of the year. the games. Buyers estimate that the price for a 30-second prime-time commercial is over $1 million.
Television has attracted the bulk of ad spend, but the amount brought in by digital and streaming ads is increasing, according to Kantar. Several forecasts predict that the Olympic Games viewership will lag behind the Games in Rio and London, while the streaming audience will grow strongly.
NBCUniversal said that during the so-called upfront negotiating sessions this year, when ad buyers reserve seats with media companies, Peacock had received $500 million in pledges for the coming year.
“You won’t find any old media company that isn’t pushing their streaming capabilities for their biggest events,” said Mr. Carey, the president of Optimum Sports. “That’s the future of where this company is going.”
United Airlines, a sponsor of Team USA, scrapped the original ad campaign promoting flights from the United States to Tokyo. The new effort, featuring gymnast Simon Biles and surfer Kolohe Andino, encourages a wider return to air travel.
“It didn’t make much sense to focus on a specific destination that Americans might not be able to travel to,” said Maggie Schmerin, the airline’s director of advertising and social media.
Essential Summer Olympics
United’s campaign will appear at airports, on social media and on streaming platforms, including Peacock, but not on TV. Ms. Schmerin said the airline wants to “match customers where they are, based on their viewing habits”.
Advertising agency executives said companies regularly checked in for updates on the Covid outbreak in Japan and could tailor their marketing messages accordingly.
“Everyone is a little cautious,” said David Droga, the founder of the Droga5 advertising agency, which was working on an Olympic campaign for Facebook that featured skateboarders. “People are quite vulnerable right now. Advertisers don’t want to be too sweet or too smart, but they try to find the right tone.”
Many companies that advertise during the Games run campaigns that required them to design from scratch after the Olympics were postponed last year.
“We’ve scheduled it twice,” said Optimum Sports’ Mr Carey. “Think about how much the world has changed in that one year and think how much each of our brands has changed what they want to say, do or sponsor. So we crumpled it up and started over.”
Visa, a sponsor, will not hold promotional and customer meetings in Tokyo and will not send senior executives, said Lynne Biggar, the company’s global chief marketing officer. The company’s commercial during the opening ceremony begins with a football game, after which Visa is used for transactions around the world.
NBCUniversal’s sports calendar also includes the Super Bowl in February, for which 85 percent of ad spaces have already been sold or are in discussion, the company said. Also on the lineup: the FIFA World Cup in Qatar in late 2022 and the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February, both of which have put the advertising industry in a difficult position due to China and Qatar’s poor human rights record.
But first, ad managers just want the Tokyo Games to go ahead without incident.
“We’ve been dealing with these Covid updates every day since last March,” said Kevin Collins, an executive at ad buying and media intelligence firm Magna. “I’m looking forward to them starting.”