In a popular ad for ESPN's coverage of this year's World Cup, the U2 front man Bono declares the tournament is, "not about communism, socialism, or capitalism." But a savvy marketing stunt unfolding this week in Johannesburg illustrates how the World Cup is as much about the contemporary mechanics of capitalism - a tasty brew of big money, sex, and media manipulation - as it is about professional sport.
South African police charged two Dutch women Wednesday with ambush marketing after they and more than 30 alleged co-conspirators had stripped down to orange mini-dresses while watching the Netherlands-Denmark match from the Soccer City stands on Monday morning. Barbara Castelein and a dental assistant from Amsterdam who gave her name to the press as Mierte said they were given an all-expenses-paid trip to the game by the Dutch brewer Bavaria NV, which has been running an orange-themed promotion since April. Once on the ground, the women recruited up to three dozen others for the stunt.
A slick video which popped up Wednesday on YouTube shows the comely crew entering the stadium dressed in the colours of the Danish team until, about 25 minutes into the match, they reveal their clingy orange outfits bearing the Dutch brewery's gold logo between the shoulder blades. In the run-up to the World Cup, Bavaria heavily promoted the possibility of female fans wearing the dress while attending games.
Budweiser is the official beer of the soccer tournament.
But as soon as they were taken into custody, the women became clear winners of their match against the authorities.
"I think FIFA and the South African police have made fools of themselves," said Leyland Pitt, a professor of marketing at Simon Fraser University who co-authored a study published this year on ambush marketing. While he acknowledged FIFA needs to enforce the rights of its sponsors, the David-and-Goliath optics were bad. "You'd have thought the South African police had better things to do than arrest a whole bunch of pretty girls in orange dresses."
FIFA was already on the defensive over a poll suggesting Nike, which has capitalized on the World Cup through savvy marketing despite not being an official sponsor, has seen far greater marketing gains from the tournament than either Adidas or Coca-Cola, both of which paid hundreds of millions for sponsorship rights.
And Mr. Pitt noted that most consumers don't automatically side with sponsors simply because they have given large sums of money that help enable sporting events. "Sometimes the opposite happens. I can see lots of [particularly Dutch]fans seeing this as a victory of the little guys [Bavaria]over the giants [Bud]" he wrote in a follow-up e-mail. Indeed, in the way of such matters these days, a Facebook group quickly formed after the Bavaria women were released: "Steun de oranje babes in Zuid Afrika!" which translates as "Support the orange babes in South Africa!"
But the World Cup host was in a tough spot. It won hosting rights, in part, by impressing FIFA with its modern intellectual property laws and enforcement mechanisms. In 2006, the South African government declared the World Cup to be a "protected event" under its commercial laws and thus subject to special consideration. Penalties can include jail time, though not usually for a first offence.
A spokesperson for Anheuser-Busch InBev, which makes Budweiser, declined to comment on whether the company considered a stunt like Bavaria's to be a serious threat to its costly sponsorship and brand. He added that the company was not involved in the legal action against the women. "That's between FIFA, SA police and Bavaria I believe," wrote Michael Torres in an e-mail.