April 19, 2008 at 11:07 pm Leave a comment




As the Olympic torch travels across the globe

amid protests about China’s human rights record

and the recent crackdown in Tibet, one

quick-service giant and other companies upon

which the industry relies for products and

services are finding themselves caught up in the controversy.


McDonald’s Corporation, The Coca-Cola Company,

and Visa, among others, have shelled out millions

to attach their names to this year’s Summer

Games, slated to run from August 8–24 in Beijing.

As The Olympic Partner (TOP) sponsors, the

companies have exclusive marketing rights to this

year’s events, affording them use of Olympic

imagery for products, preferential access to

Olympic broadcast advertising, on-site concession

opportunities, acknowledgement of their

sponsorship through a recognition program, and

other benefits. Essentially, they have a window

to the billions of people in more than 200

countries worldwide that follow the games,

according to the International Olympic Committee’s web site.


But this year, in addition to that access, the

sponsors are also taking heat from human rights

organizations and others who say they should be

doing more to denounce China’s treatment of

Tibetans; the country’s close ties to Sudan,

where government soldiers have carried out the

widespread killing of civilians in the Darfur

region since 2004; and its dismal human rights record in general.



Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based organization

that conducts fact-finding investigations into

human rights abuses around the world, has had

meetings with Coca-Cola in attempts to convince

the company to use its stage as an Olympic

sponsor to address the human rights situation in

China, says Minky Worden, the group’s media

director. She says Human Rights Watch had hoped

the company would speak out against the limited

press freedom, forced evictions of Chinese

citizens prior to the Olympics, and crackdowns on

civil society in Tibet and the rest of China.

Even so, the company has thus far refused to take

a stand publicly on the issue.


In lieu of an interview for this story, Coca-Cola

provided the following statement:


“The Coca-Cola Company joins others in expressing

deep concern for the situation on the ground in

Tibet. We know that all parties involved hope for a peaceful resolution.


“While it would be an inappropriate role for

sponsors to comment on the political situation of

individual nations, as the longest-standing

sponsor of the Olympic Movement, we firmly

believe that the Olympics are a force for good.

Since 1928, we have supported the Olympic Games

wherever they’ve been held, and have witnessed

first-hand the cultural, economic and social

benefits they bring to the host city and country.


“We remain committed to supporting the Torch

Relay, which provides a unique opportunity to

share the Olympic values of unity, pride,

optimism and inspiration with people all over the world.”


Worden acknowledged that Coca-Cola made a point

of engaging Human Rights Watch in discussions

about the company’s stance but says the group is

ultimately disappointed with Coca-Cola’s decision not to speak out.


“In its corporate social responsibility policies,

Coca-Cola seems to be willing to take up these

issues, but in the face of abuses in China,

they’re proving to be less willing to act when

given the opportunity,” she says.


Human Rights Watch has sent letters to all of the

Olympic sponsors, including McDonald’s and Visa,

since September 2007 in attempts to convince them

to speak out about human rights abuses in China.

So far, the group says, none have acted on their

recommendations, though a meeting is scheduled

with Visa, which did not return calls or e-mails for this story.


When contacted for comment, McDonald’s issued the following statement:


“McDonald’s is proud of our long-time sponsorship

of the Olympic Games. We believe in the spirit of

the Games and their unique ability to engage the

world in a way that is constructive, positive and

inspirational. Our focus has been and will

continue to be on supporting the athletes, their

teams, and the power of the Olympic Games to

reinforce excellence, unity and achievement among people the world over.


“Concerning political issues, these need to be

resolved by governments and international bodies

such as the United Nations where they can most

effectively drive discussions, diplomacy and help speed solutions.

Dream for Darfur: “The window is closing when the

Olympics are over. We’re asking sponsors to raise

their voices about this genocide.”


“Regarding Tibet, our focus continues to remain

on the Games and the athletes, and we hope that a

peaceful resolution can be reached for all parties concerned.”


Dream for Darfur is another advocacy campaign

targeting Olympic sponsors to speak out against

China‘s policies. The group seeks to use the

Olympic Games as a point of leverage to encourage

the Chinese government to convince the Sudanese

government to allow United Nations peacekeeping

troops to enter the war-torn Darfur region. China

has been accused of continuing to support the

Sudanese regime even as civilians are killed in

the western part of the country.


“We have this one small window of opportunity in

which we can make a difference and get our

message across,” says Ellen Freudenheim,

corporate outreach director for the organization.

“That window is closing when the games are over.

We’re asking them to raise their voices about this genocide.”


Last year, Dream for Darfur issued a report card

grading each of the corporate sponsors on their

corporate responsibility responses to China’s

support of Sudan. McDonald’s received a C,

Coca-Cola was given a D, and Visa got an F.


Freudenheim says if the sponsors continue to

remain silent, she anticipates demonstrations at

their company headquarters. A separate campaign,

Turn Off for Darfur, is encouraging Olympic

viewers to turn off their advertisements during

the games if the sponsors take no action.


But Peter Shankman, founder of Shankman

Consulting, a marketing, public relations, and

crisis management firm based in New York City,

says despite the criticism they are receiving,

the sponsors are handling the situation as best they can.


“It’s the only thing they can do,” he says. “They

have put a fortune into this already. I guarantee

they’re not too happy about their sponsorship

right now, but at this point, to pull out,

there’s no way they could save face.”


The sponsors also have a vested interest in playing nice with China, he says.


“The Olympics will blow over in a few months,”

Shankman says. “What’s not going to blow over is

that China has billions of consumers.”


Moreover, Shankman says he doubts that the

sponsors will be significantly hurt by the protests and criticism.


“So far, nothing about these protests has shown

me anything that would make me think anybody is

going to be hurt at all,” he says.


So what does this have to do with quick-service restaurants themselves?


“I would imagine there’s going to be some promo

programs in some of those outlets leading up to

the Olympics,” says David Chapman, CEO of 919

Marketing, a North Carolina–based marketing

agency. “Fast-food restaurants are big on tying

into topical events, and they’re going to have to

think about that very carefully.”


He says pulling out promotions could be costly,

and sponsors and restaurants should have contingency plans in place.


But Paul Sickmon, president of Knox Sports

Marketing, a sports sponsorship management and

negotiation company based in Tampa, Florida, says

there’s no telling what could happen between now and the Games this summer.


“It’s too early to determine whether the sponsors

are going to react or should react,” he says. “We have to wait and see.”





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