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Unified world a central theme in Olympics ads

For many advertisers this year, their Olympic spots in the U.S. are more about humanity and athletes and less about national pride.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Some ads preach unity and togetherness. Some celebrate the spirit of athleticism.

For many advertisers this year, their Olympic spots in the U.S. are more about humanity and athletes and less about national pride. They're also making less mention of host country China.

It's a big business advertising for the Olympics. This year's games in Beijing, which get under way next month, will draw in viewers from around the world, representing a big chance for advertisers to showcase their products.

Many, including Nike Corp. and McDonald's Corp., say this campaign will be their biggest yet.

But this time around, there's a slumping U.S. economy to contend with — so advertisers are being more cautious, experts say. There's also the fear that mentioning China too much could lead to negative associations with the brands, should problems develop at the Olympics.

From Visa Inc.'s 'Go World' campaign to unifying themes from Coca-Cola Co. and McDonald's, major sponsors are calling for harmony and avoiding boasts of patriotism for any one country.

A major spot by Coca-Cola, called "Yao and LeBron-Unity" features animated versions of the two basketball stars, Chinese native Yao Ming and American LeBron James, facing off in a basketball duel. They pull in people and things associated with their home countries, such as cowboys for James and pandas for Yao as they face off. But when they both snag a Coke, they high-five and all is good.

"In this kind of divided time it just feels right for the brand and right for Coca-Cola," said Katie Bayne, chief marketing officer for the company's North American division.

The big question for U.S. advertisers is how do they acknowledge China in their domestic advertisements, or do they bother at all, said John Sweeney, an advertising professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

They'll want to associate themselves with the games, but may be wary of the Beijing connection, he said.

There are human rights issues, worries about political protests and potential efforts by the Chinese government to stifle spectators and media covering the events. There's also the earthquake earlier this year in Sichuan province that left nearly 70,000 people dead and 5 million homeless.

All seems to be fine now, Sweeney said, but who knows what will happen as the Olympics approach.

"If the negative stuff re-emerges as sort of the framework hanging around the Olympics, it's going to be a very tough marketing environment," he said.

But companies are going full steam ahead.

Visa is focusing on athletes and the glory of the Olympics in its 'Go World' campaign.

In years past, the company had taken less of a global approach, said Kevin Burke, Visa's head of global consumer marketing. But he said the current campaign, developed last fall, sought to include both past and current athletes from the U.S. and other countries.

Four years ago at the last summer Olympics, Visa's most well-known ad featured champion Michael Phelps swimming from Greece — the site of those games — to the Statue of Liberty in a piece called "Lap."

The tone is different this year. In the flagship ad called 'Come Together,' actor Morgan Freeman talks about how the games bring people together, despite their differences.

Images of athletes in rich sepia tones stream as Freeman says, "We don't always agree. But for a few shining weeks we set it all aside and we come together to stand and cheer and celebrate as one. We forget all the things that make us different and remember all the things that make us the same."

Burke said this year's campaign — which features Phelps, gold medal-winning gymnast Kerri Strug, Bob Beamon, who has held the record for the long jump since 1968, and others from countries including Ukraine, Ethiopia, South Africa and Nigeria — wasn't designed to reflect anything that's going on in the world. He said viewers like its message of togetherness.

"When we shared it with consumers they really enjoyed the fact it wasn't just a celebration of U.S. athletes. It was a celebration of all athletes," Burke said.

Coca-Cola's ads continue the company's campaign called "The Coke Side of Life" and their theme is to connect the world through a Coke, Bayne said. Another ad features animated birds from around the world collecting straws and assembling their own Olympic stadium, a model of the one in China, which is nicknamed the bird's nest. They come together, in all their different colors, and watch the opening ceremonies from inside their nest.

McDonald's has a television spot airing now called "The More We Get Together" that juxtaposes a nursery-song rhyme against competitive moments with athletes of varied races and colors, none wearing national symbols.

"The more we get together the happier we'll be," the ad says.

Mary Dillon, chief marketing officer for McDonald's in North America, said the company wanted to play up the universal themes of its fast-food restaurants, which are found in more than 100 countries.

"In Athens, the last summer Olympics it was about the Olympic tradition. Really this time we're really trying to bring it up a notch," she said. "The Olympics is all about bringing people together and we're looking at ways of bringing it to life."

Advertisers could also be taking a more global approach to advertising in the U.S. to appeal to the foreign tourists flocking here now because of the weak dollar, said Michael Roberto, a management professor at Byrant University Smithfield, R.I. Anything too patriotic could turn these tourists — and their euros — off, he said.

"Those are the kinds of people who are most likely to buy American consumer products when they go back to their home countries. Companies are perhaps concerned about the image they present," Roberto said.

But advertisements in China are boasting with national pride. Why? Because companies are trying to capture the attention of consumers in a market where retail spending is growing at more than 20 percent per year.

An ad by McDonald's called "Open Door" features Chinese athletes training in their sports, such as gymnastics, cycling and badminton, and workers making food at McDonald's. It ends with the athletes, in bright red track suits, eating burgers.

The Olympics advertising in China focuses on homegrown stars, not only Yao Ming, but others who are likely unknown to foreign fans but well-loved by the Chinese: hurdler Liu Xiang, diver Guo Jingjing, soccer player Ma Xiaoxu and table tennis legend Deng Yaping.

The tone of the ads is often rousing, with a focus on winning glory for China and its people.

"The applause of 1.3 billion people" says one television spot for Chinese sports product maker Li Ning, while flashing triumphant images of the always-dominant ping pong squad. A recent campaign by Adidas shows individual Chinese athletes shot in color, held aloft by crowds drawn in black and white.