It is the closest thing to a sure bet in advertising — associating with the Olympic athletes who train for years with the chance of winning a gold medal. And corporations are paying big money to align themselves with the Olympians competing at next month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi.
But with the Sochi Games increasingly tied to anti-gay laws in Russia, that sure bet has become a bit shakier. Over the past week, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and other big advertisers are having to fend off gay rights activists who have hijacked their Olympic promotions on social media.
The tug of war involving McDonald’s began last Tuesday when the company introduced on its Twitter feed a hashtag, #CheersToSochi, in a post that read: “We’re kicking off a way to send your well wishes to any Olympian today. Are you ready to send your #CheersToSochi?”
Soon after, activists who have been protesting a federal law in Russia against “homosexual propaganda,” which is widely considered anti-gay, filled Twitter with posts that used the hashtag for their own purposes. Such appropriations are known as “hashtag hijacking,” and McDonald’s has been a target before, most notably in January 2012 when Twitter was flooded with negative posts using the company’s hashtag, #McDStories, which had been intended to elicit warm-and-fuzzy anecdotes about Happy Meals.
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“Hey, @McDonalds: You’re sending #CheersToSochi while goons wearing Olympic uniforms assault LGBT people,” read one comment last week, from author and activist Dan Savage.
The hijacking then spread to other sponsors of the Winter Games, most notably Coca-Cola. An organization called Queer Nation NY re-edited the famous 1971 commercial for Coca-Cola in which singers on a hilltop want “to buy the world a Coke” to include scenes of protesters in Russia being attacked for demonstrating against the law.
Coca-Cola responded Sunday by uploading the commercial to a Facebook page and adding this comment: “Cheers to the fact that a song can top the charts and be about love, equality and happiness. #AmericaIsBeautiful.” That hashtag, as it turns out, is part of a campaign Coca-Cola Co. is starting Sunday, on Super Bowl XLVIII, and will continue through the Winter Games, from Feb. 7 through 23.
“We’re a brand that has always been about inclusion and diversity,” Katie Bayne, president for North America brands at the Coca-Cola North America unit of the Coca-Cola Co., said in a telephone interview Monday. “We’re convinced, as we talk about Coke standing for inclusion, it’s the best way to go.”
“The big message here is that America is beautiful and Coke is for everyone,” she said.
One of the two commercials Coca-Cola intends to run during Super Bowl XLVIII features a teenage boy who, despite his slight size, unexpectedly becomes the hero of a high school football game, Bayne said.
It is “an American story of triumph and being an underdog,” she said of the commercial, created by Wieden & Kennedy in Portland, Ore.
The activists have also turned to a Coca-Cola website where visitors can create images of Coke cans bearing their names in the brand’s trademark Spencerian script to create images of Coke cans bearing words and phrases like “Haters,” “Blood-Money,” “LetsAllBeGay” and “HelpLGBTInRu” (for “Russia”).
McDonald’s, one of the largest sponsors of the Winter Games, responded to the activists in a statement on a section of the company’s website devoted to communicating with the news media.
The statement began by describing the purpose of the #CheersToSochi campaign as “simple: to send Olympic athletes and teams messages of good luck.”
“We are aware that some activists are targeting Olympic sponsors to voice their concerns regarding the Russia LGBT legislation,” the statement continued. “McDonald’s supports human rights, the spirit of the Olympics and all the athletes who’ve worked so hard to compete in the Games. We believe the Olympic Games should be open to all, free of discrimination, and that applies to spectators, officials, media and athletes.”
The activists do not seem mollified. On Twitter on Monday, Queer Nation NY expanded its efforts to appropriate #CheersToSochi to include sponsors like Procter & Gamble and Visa. The organization posted a photograph of Russian protesters being arrested with the comment “Use @Visa for your bail!”
Antonio Lucio, chief brand officer at Visa, said in a recent interview that Visa executives “support the highest ideals of the Olympic movement, which include inclusion.”
“We have a strong anti-discrimination policy,” he added, “and we will make sure we will have all sorts of guarantees our guests and employees are well taken care of.”
In contrast to official Olympic sponsors like Visa, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, some smaller advertisers are allying themselves with the protesters to support rights for Russians who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender.
For example, Lush, a chain of cosmetics shops, is introducing a campaign that carries the theme “We believe in love” and encouraging customers to decorate their bodies with pink triangles to show support for equal rights.