BEGINNING on Friday, the Chinese government will begin restricting advertising space in Beijing, giving preference to the official sponsors of the Olympic Games.
The restrictions are meant to clamp down on so-called ambush marketers, which are companies that are not official sponsors but hope to gain some halo effect from the Games. One advertiser that is likely to suffer the most is Nike, which has broad marketing ambitions in China but no qualifying sponsorship deal.
Ambush marketing has long been a flashpoint at the Olympics. Sponsors pay upward of $65 million for the right to affiliate their brand with the Olympics, and they do not want their advertisements eclipsed by nonpaying competitors. The job of policing the marketing landscape is generally left to the host country, the International Olympic Committee and national organizing committees.
The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, which is known as Bocog, has asked advertising agencies to avoid using Olympic symbols without authorization and is asking media companies to carry ads of Olympic sponsors on their channels featuring Olympic content.
From the perspective of the sponsors, this is a good thing indeed.
"We really rely on them to monitor and correct those problems," said Petro Kacur, a spokesman for Coca-Cola, an official sponsor. "It's not a role that we play."
China has signaled that it takes this responsibility seriously. Starting on Friday, "all prominent advertising space in Beijing, including at the airport and on subway lines, will be controlled, giving official sponsors priority," said Chen Feng, deputy director of marketing for Bocog, according to a report in Xinhua, the Chinese state-run news agency.
Given that China does not generally use a light touch in carrying out rules of this sort, it is possible that unauthorized ads will be removed forcefully and immediately. According to a report in Advertising Age, the government has removed more than 30,000 outdoor ads in Beijing in the last year.
Although the government has been keeping a tight leash on Olympics-related matters, it did give some ground to foreign broadcasters this week. On Wednesday, Beijing eased restrictions on television reporting during the Games, saying that it would allow live news coverage in Beijing and would permit satellite trucks to be stationed in Beijing and other cities with Olympic events. That cleared up two big points of contention.
A third one was settled as well: the government said it would permit limited live coverage from Tiananmen Square for networks like NBC, which has the official broadcasting rights in the United States. NBC confirmed on Thursday that it now planned to broadcast live from there.
"The fact that live coverage will eventually be allowed is a positive development," said Lucie Morillon, a spokeswoman for Reporters Without Borders, in an e-mail message on Thursday. "But this should have been allowed from the start, since the Chinese authorities promised 'complete freedom of the press' in 2001," when Beijing won the bid to host the Games.
On the advertising front, the government's goal has been to make Beijing look spic and span. In part to eliminate clutter, advertisements on the front, back and doors of buses in Beijing were banned beginning this month. However, many of the moves are to protect sponsors.
"The volume of advertising, mostly billboard advertising, has been cut down considerably," said Dan Mintz, chief creative officer of Dynamic Marketing Group, a Chinese advertising firm that works with Volkswagen, which is an official Olympic sponsor, and Nike. Nike has traditionally been one of the biggest ambush marketers at the Olympics.
In Barcelona in 1992, Michael Jordan and some other American basketball team members covered the Reebok logos on their uniforms because they were individually sponsored by Nike. And at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, when Nike was not the official sponsor, it took over a parking garage near the center of the Games and turned it into a hospitality center and retail store.
In China, Adidas and Nike will face off. Last week, Adidas opened its largest retail store in Beijing, 10,000 square feet; it is opening about 1,000 retail stores in China this year.
Nike is sponsoring some individual athletes and groups as well as the United States Olympic Committee, but it is not considered an official sponsor because it has not signed on with Bocog or the IOC
Nike "is committed to full compliance around Olympics branding" in Beijing, a spokesman, Derek Kent, wrote in an e-mail message.
It is standard for cities that hold the Olympics to try to control ambush marketing, said Patrick Sandusky, vice president for sports marketing at Hill & Knowlton and the spokesman for Chicago's 2016 Olympics bid.
"When cities bid for the Games, they usually get into some sort of agreement with the advertisers in their city and the billboards in their city to ensure they're only used for sponsors," Sandusky said.
Jim Scherr, chief executive of the United States Olympic Committee, said his organization had "a group of people who spend their time making sure our brand is not traded on by those who do not have a proper association with it."
For sponsors like Visa, which has been making preparations in Beijing for more than two years, the protections are welcome. Visa had a logistical challenge as well as a marketing one: it had to get merchants equipped to accept Visa cards, strike partnerships with Chinese banks and have ATM's installed.
At the beginning, "we were building up brand awareness in China from almost a zero base," said Rajiv Kapoor, executive vice president for marketing at Visa Asia/Pacific. "We wanted to go in strategically before there would be more sponsor clutter."