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The Straight Dope by Cecil Adams. For publication the week ending Friday, 07-12-96. Copyright 1996 Chicago Reader, Inc. All rights reserved. Publication without express written permission or before Monday of the week ending 07-12-96 is prohibited.

The other day I heard a radio commercial for a camera. At the end of the spot the announcer mentioned that it was the official camera of the U.S. Olympics. It occurred to me that not only is there an official camera for the Olympics, but probably an official paper towel, laundry detergent, and frozen yogurt. How far do they take this "official" business? And exactly how is it determined what the official camera is anyway? Is there some rigorous Olympics Testing Committee for cameras, or does it all come down to payola? --Brett Bayne, Los Angeles

Payola isn't the most elegant word we might use for this, Brett. Let's say it's free enterprise in action.

As you suspect, there's no product Olympics in which hard-working businesses (hmm, should they be amateurs? would you want them if they were?) compete for the honor of providing the athletes with cameras, beer steins, and other necessities of life.

The actual selection process is simple: you pay the money, you get to be an official sponsor. It's not cheap. Top-of-the-line sponsors reportedly had to shell out more than $50 million each in the form of cash, goods, and services. All told, close to $1 billion will have been raised in this way during the current four-year Olympic cycle.

Most people have no illusions about what it means to be a sponsor, be it of a TV show or a sports event: you cough up some cash in hopes of gaining commercial advantage. What confuses the issue is the "official" business. Olympic sponsors are not required to contribute an official Olympic anything to the games. However, the big companies interested in becoming Olympic sponsors often sell things that the Olympic organizers need.

So the two sides strike a deal. Nissan, say, agrees to provide the Olympics with the thousands of vans, light trucks, and utility vehicles it needs for the duration of the games. In return the company is allowed to advertise the Nissan Quest as the Official Import Minivan, the Nissan Pathfinder as the Official Import Sport Utility Vehicle, and so on.

Similarly, Texaco is the Official Petroleum Provider, the Visa card is the Official [Credit] Card, and Coca-Cola provides the official soft drinks.

It's an exclusive arrangement. You can bet if you grab a can of soda pop in the Olympic Village this year it won't be a Diet Pepsi.

Is there an official Olympic everything? Just the opposite. The trend over the past several olympiads has been toward fewer sponsors paying more money. There are still plenty of official Olympic souvenirs, but it's not like the old days, when you couldn't walk down a grocery aisle without a half dozen official Olympic products falling into your cart.

The organizers of this summer's games did offer promotion rights to suppliers who weren't sponsors in return for a deal. But don't expect to see ads for the official Olympic forklift or toilet paper. Promotion by suppliers is restricted to the trade press.

Which brings us to that camera commercial you heard. It's for the Cameo Motor EX Olympic edition from Eastman Kodak, one of ten worldwide Olympic sponsors. The Cameo is one of two official Olympic cameras, the other being Kodak's Fun Saver Pocket 35, the Official One-Time-Use Camera. They will be the only cameras on sale at Olympic shops during the games. The Fun Saver will also be given to athletes and attendees at the closing ceremonies.

Bestowing the "official" label on these cameras was strictly Kodak's decision. Why the Cameo Motor EX? You called Kodak's 800 number and were told "with rather surprising honesty that sales of the camera were waning, and this was probably a mere marketing ploy."

Horrified Kodak spokespeople were quick to deny this, pointing out that the Cameo is Kodak's best-selling nonthrowaway camera. But still, is it a marketing ploy? Of course. Is the whole "official" products business a bit silly? You bet. Is it a monstrous scam? Look at it this way. The Olympics are a good show, they separate corporate America from a billion dollars that would otherwise be spent on who knows what foolishness, and they help Kodak sell a few more cameras. How upset can I get?

--CECIL ADAMS

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver the Straight Dope on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611, E-mail him at cecil@chireader.com, or visit the Straight Dope area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Slug Signorino.

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