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How 'Unofficial' Condoms Upset Olympic Sponsors

Wednesday, 8 Aug 2012 | 10:54 AM ET
London Spectators at Olympics
Getty Images
London Spectators at Olympics

When it comes to protecting the Olympic sponsors, the ferocity of enforcement this time around is unprecedented and controversial.

For example, the Goodyear Blimp flies over Olympic Park, but you won't see the company's logo. That's because Goodyear is not an Olympic sponsor.

And on the ground in Olympic Park, the only visible brands are those of the companies putting up millions of dollars to be official sponsors. So there's no Burger King or Pepsi T-shirts allowed if you are attending the London Olympics because Coke and McDonald's are the specific sponsors.

The marketing clampdown comes as Olympic sponsors are out to stop what's called ambush marketing—marketing by companies who aren't official sponsors. To legalize their effort, the officials sponsors got a law passed in the U.K. —as part of the Olympic contract—that criminalizes ambush marketing.

So if you show up at a venue wearing something with a non-Olympic brand and they determine your intention is to advertise that brand, you can be charged with a crime and fined 20,000 pounds or $31,000.

Even outside the park, on the roads and trains leading to the events, every billboard and advertisement is controlled by Olympic organizers. That includes the condoms handed out to athletes are subject to these rules. After an athlete tweeted out a photo of an unofficial sponsored condom, 'brand police' are investigating why they were being distributed.

Juan Samaranch is a member of the International Olympic Committee and says that the top sponsors, "all the people that make this possible," have the right to be very strict what they require from the IOC.

The classic case of "ambush marketing" was in Atlanta, Georgia for the 1996 Summer Games. Nike plastered the city with billboards and handed out Nike flags for attendees to wave at the games. When all was said and done, many people thought Nike was the official sponsor, when in fact, it was Reebok.

You won't be surprised but all the Olympic sponsors we've spoken to say they like the rules. They've spent a lot of money, and if there were to be many repeats of what happened in Atlanta, no one would sponsor the games anymore, and the Olympics couldn't exist without that money.

But the strict policing at this year's Olympics has lead to a backlash. Athletes have gone on a twitter campaign to end a new regulation called Rule 40, which prohibits them from appearing in advertising during the Olympic games. The Royal Institute of British Architects protested by putting up the list of engineers who helped make the venues possible—under the rules they are prohibited from promoting their involvement in the construction of the venues.

And some retailers are determined to get around the restrictions. Shops and stores near the Olympic venues are doing some clever go-arounds—the Olympic café is now the Lympic café. And a coffee shop in Camden simply says their Olympic rings have been censored.

In theory, these Olympic bread rings are prohibited. But maybe they'll be eaten before the brand police catch sight of them.

This story is by CNBC's Michelle Caruso-Cabrera.

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