The Digital Collide: #Sochiproblems

Posted on February 21, 2014 | Karen Moores | 0 Comments

The 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia are over and social media has told many great athlete stories during these Games, especially for the well-connected Canadian and American Olympic teams with major networks offering not just extensive coverage but play by play of their events (as well as up close and personal athlete segments) increasingly via live social streams, especially Twitter. (The Twitter meets traditional television convergence is one of the biggest social media stories from the 2014 Olympics.)

One of the other emerging stories as these Olympic Games get set to close is the interplay between the world’s great brands, leaders like Coca Cola, McDonald’s, BMW, VISA, and Proctor & Gamble and the public, especially those engaging on social media, as outcry about human rights issues within Putin’s Russia rose during this Winter Olympics.

Brands reacted in varying ways with some advertising and sponsorship players deciding to walk the line between supporting the world’s athletes while still pressuring Russia to improve its policies with modified messaging; other brands, especially those without a message to Russian leaders, received a strong social media backlash and even parody campaigns for what consumers perceived as support for an Olympics that didn’t embody Olympic values or spirit.

McDonald’s had the best of intentions to applaud athletes wildly across the miles through a hashtag and digital campaign designed to let well wishes send their messages to Sochi. After blowback from activists and negative feedback about associating with the Sochi Olympics, McDonald’s went silent on its #cheerstosochi campaign. (You could still see lots of well-done Canadian advertising, including a spot with McDonald’s Canada founder, George Cohon, on Canadian television during the Games.)

Despite modifying its messaging to remove the #cheerstosochi wording, McDonald’s, together with Coca Cola, became the subject of a parody campaign that sought to raise awareness of LGBT issues in Russia while also mocking big brands affiliation with the Sochi experience. Longtime Olympic supporter and advertiser Coca Cola wove a message of equality into its Opening Ceremonies messaging, despite still being criticized for Sochi support.

Social media support was strong from consumers for brands that found that balance – supporting the Olympians while also acknowledging publicly that Russian needs to become a progressive, inclusive nation to gain global respect. American telecommunications firm AT&T issued perhaps the strongest public statement noting their strong support for gay rights around the world and openly criticized Russia for their lack of progressive policy for all. (The brand wasn’t quiet about their opinion that this would be a game changer for sponsors.)

The competition for #sochi2014 was Austria – an area many feel would have been safer, a little less controversial and perhaps without a hashtag on the problems of the games. The next Olympic Games, in the summer of 2016, will be in Rio. One broadcaster noted Rio isn’t without its share of social problems and for advertisers, especially in the tweet-by-tweet and hashtagging culture of modern Olympic Games, #Sochiproblems might not go away for the next Olympic ad season; they might just have a new hashtag for a different Olympic experience.

For Olympic advertisers and sponsors, the prep for the next series of Olympic advertising, on traditional and social channels, will involve finding a way to draw light to major societal issues that need attention, especially those as extreme as those in Putin’s Russia, while also telling their brand story and the story of the world’s athletes.

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