China’s Olympics Present a Quandary for Sponsors

Every four years, the Olympic Games create memorable moments and inspiring stories. They usually generate high ratings because they’re often the only opportunity people get to see certain sports. Growing up in the South and not experiencing winter like so many other people do, I long been fascinated by the Winter Olympics, particularly skiing and snowboarding.

The Olympics are also a massive moneymaker, with sponsors spending insane amounts of money to promote their products on a unique world stage. Heart-tugging commercials that remind us of the soaring Olympic spirit cost tons of money, but they bring in tons of bank as well.

But this year’s Winter Olympics, which kick off on Friday, have generated controversy because China is the host nation. The communist country’s disastrous human rights record and its location as ground zero of the COVID-19 pandemic have turned the Olympics into a public relations nightmare for sponsors.

Andrew Eggar at The Dispatch recounts Coca-Cola’s new Olympic ads, which, like other commercials that air during the games, are intended to inspire. They also highlight Coke’s sustainability efforts.

But there’s one catch to these stirring — and expensive — commercials: you won’t see them unless you’re in China.

Eggar writes:

Like many other Olympic sponsors pressing the brakes on their domestic advertising this year, Coca-Cola is keeping silent on its reasons for letting its nine-figure Olympic sponsorship deal go to waste in the English-speaking world. (The company did not respond to a request for comment for this piece, nor has it opened up on the subject to other outlets.)

Explicit or not, the strategy is hard to mistake: The Beijing Olympics are shaping up to be a public-relations disaster for companies trying to straddle both U.S. and Chinese markets. The human rights abuses the Chinese government is perpetrating toward the predominantly Muslim Uyghur people, which the U.S. last year termed a genocide and Human Rights Watch has labeled crimes against humanity, hang as a pall over the Games. The U.S. and several other Western countries have opted for a diplomatic boycott.

It’s a tricky balancing act for companies like Coca-Cola. The Olympic Games have traditionally been a goldmine to advertisers, and for corporations that have existing relationships with the Olympics, placing ads is a no-brainer. This year’s games are an outlier because they’ve turned into such a lightning rod for controversy.

Some say that the Olympics are an opportunity to put politics aside and unite. But for human rights organizations, that’s not necessarily the case, particularly when it comes to China.

“The Olympics have always been political,” Peter Irwin of the Uyghur Human Rights Project told The Dispatch. “From a more abstract point of view, when you hear people saying that something is not political or that it shouldn’t be political, you should take that as political—apoliticism is a choice. You choose to be non-political in a situation.”

The brouhaha over Olympic advertising comes as corporations have come under fire for their relationships with China. Nike, the NBA, and most movie studios simply look the other way from China’s human rights record. In some cases, professional athletes love to lecture Americans on the ghosts of past racism while whistling past the graveyard of China’s human rights abuses.

As Erick Erickson writes:

Sports celebrities are really happy to lecture Americans about civil rights while profiting off China. Aaron Rogers gets excoriated by the press for his statements on COVID and even Joe Biden, but LeBron James is lionized in the media even as he rakes in cash from the communists abroad and refuses to even address their barbarity.

It’s all, after all, a business transaction. We only see the death, despair, and savagery of the Chinese Communists if we choose to look.

These Olympic advertisers pretend to be blissfully ignorant of the terrors that are happening in China, even as the presence of the games there generates controversy. Part of this is because they know that threats of boycott won’t materialize and that boycotts don’t work in general anyway. But the biggest reason is that their profits matter far more than China’s treatment of Uyghurs or conditions in Tibet or Hong Kong.

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