As we shiver and bundle up against the Polar Vortex here in DC, we are fast approaching the biggest event of the advertising year—the Super Bowl®—held for the first time in the wintry conditions of New Jersey). With the Olympic Games® in Sochi, Russia after that, and March Madness® following soon thereafter, February and March will be an orgy of watching televised sports for most of us—except for those poor souls who are responding to cease and desist letters for infringing uses of trademarks and/or implying a false affiliation with these winter events.
While the advertising opportunities appear to be rich with both the Super Bowl and the Olympics, advertisers and marketers must be extra cautious when launching ad campaigns that could imply any sort of connection or association with either of these two events or that use the name of the two events for commercial purposes. The Super Bowl and March Madness are both trademarked terms, and the NFL and the NCAA, respectively, vigorously prosecute unauthorized usage of those marks, sending out dozens of cease and desist letters each year and even bringing lawsuits in some cases. Moreover, the U.S. Olympic committee enforces U.S laws that expressly protect the use of the word “Olympics” and the interlocking rings, and can be even more aggressive than the NFL and NCAA about stopping “ambush marketing” and unauthorized association with its marks.
So, while many think of the Super Bowl as the ultimate platform for advertisers and marketers to feature their products and services using carefully crafted, artistic masterpieces that are interrupted only by the game itself (and some “family friendly” halftime show), advertisers should be extremely cautious when using the trademarked phrases “Super Bowl” or “March Madness” in advertising and promotions. Moreover, the Olympics goes a step further than the NFL in terms of trademark protection: not only should advertisers forego any direct reference to the word “Olympics” for a marketing or advertising purpose, they should also avoid use of the Olympic rings or other associated symbols or logos.
What is a brand to do, then? We see promotions all the time that talk about “the Big Game,” don’t we? In fact, that particular substitution is so common that when the NFL tried to trademark that phrase in 2006, the move was opposed by a long list of advertisers. It was ultimately blocked by a college football rivalry between UC Berkeley and Stanford University that has been known as “the Big Game” for more than a century. Generally speaking, it is safe to use a generic formulation like “the Big Game” or “game time” with a football or a basketball image; a phrase like for “your winter sports viewing pleasure” or similar formulation that avoids the registered trademark is probably ok as well. The most important thing is to avoid implying that the advertiser is somehow affiliated with the big event. Don’t skate on thin ice when it comes to marketing these big wintertime sporting events—avoid improper use of trademarks and logos. You don’t want to be put out in the cold by the NFL, the NCAA or the Olympic Committee.