Russian president, Vladimir Putin has led a series of harsh political actions against homosexuals over the past month, including passing one resolution that bans propaganda of all non-traditional sexual relations. With Sochi set to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, worldwide protest of this reform continues to grow leaving many calling for the International Olympic Committee to demand retraction of Russia’s laws under the threat of boycott.
The IOC has promised that it would work to ensure members of the LGBT community, athletes and spectators alike, safe participation in the games without experiencing any discrimination. In a recent statement, the IOC claims to have received “assurances from the highest level” of Russian government that the anti-gay propaganda law will not affect anyone participating in or attending the Games. Despite these assurances, many remain skeptical. Would you feel safe?
Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin recently challenged NBC Universal, which paid $4 billion for exclusive rights of Olympic coverage, to fully disclose Russia’s human rights violations during its broadcasts. NBC’s response left much to be desired, as they agreed to “provide coverage of Russia’s anti-gay laws IF the controversial measures surface as an issue during the upcoming Winter Olympics.”
Social issues of this magnitude are typically not on the minds of corporate sponsors when they are inking multi-million dollar contracts. Their concern lies in putting together innovative and effective campaigns that will maximize their ROI. With the Sochi Games fast approaching, however, opposition to Putin’s war on the gay community is gaining steam.
In addition to the rampant and growing calls on Facebook for boycotting anything Russian, the latest target on social media is aimed squarely at Olympic sponsors. The controversy will challenge companies like AT&T, Coca-Cola, General Motors, McDonald’s, Panasonic, Samsung, VISA, and Procter & Gamble that have made huge commitments to sponsor all that is positive about the Olympic movement. However, with the unanticipated turmoil in Russia, they run the risk of being associated with the event for all the wrong reasons. The controversial nature of this issue leaves them vulnerable to offending the LGBT community to the point where they may lose the group as consumers for years to come.
Coca-Cola, sponsor of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Torch Relay, has a longstanding history of support for LGBT events and causes. Coke has repeatedly stood behind their statement that they do not condone intolerance of any kind. Despite this, it has refused to weigh in on the controversy, claiming that it “does not take positions on political matters unrelated to our business.”
Olympic sponsors will continue to feel immense pressure to make a statement against Russia’s policies as the February Opening Ceremony nears. The Olympics are almost always accompanied with some form of controversy. This includes, most recently, protests against Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Summer Games due to China’s human rights track record. However, given the recent passion surrounding LGBT equality and the proliferation of social media since 2008 the potential for an issue to directly impact official sponsors in this capacity is unprecedented.
Regardless of how this plays out, the bigger question for sponsors will remain. What level of responsibility should sponsors of the Olympics bear? Where do you draw the line between sports and politics? Is there truly an effective reaction for sponsors to take that will satisfy anyone in situations like this?