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persuasion notebook

Screen grab from Bell Canada Olympics ad.

Persuasion Notebook offers quick hits on the business of persuasion from The Globe and Mail's marketing and advertising reporter, Susan Krashinsky. Read more on The Globe's marketing page and follow Susan on Twitter @Susinsky.

Canadian Olympic Committee sponsor BCE Inc. appears to be dipping its toe ever so gingerly into controversial waters: the discussion around gay rights, and their suppression, in the Games' host country.

During the broadcasts on CBC of the first Olympic events this weekend, Bell Canada unveiled an ad that will run during the Games, featuring people using different devices to watch the athletic events in Russia. Among the flurried montage is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of two men sitting on the couch and celebrating with a kiss as an athlete's winning performance plays on the television.

It is becoming increasingly common for companies to include gay couples among the relationships they depict in their advertising. However, considering the concerns over gay rights surrounding these Games, such a move by a sponsor carries extra weight.

In the lead-up to the opening ceremony in Sochi last week, calls intensified for Olympic sponsors to speak out about concerns over discrimination and violence against gay people in Russia. In July, the country passed a law forbidding "propaganda" that portrays gay relationships as normal.

Last week, U.S. telecom company AT&T, which is a U.S. Olympic Committee sponsor, categorically expressed its opposition to the law and called on other sponsors to do the same. Pressure has been especially great on International Olympic Committee sponsors, who have the most money invested in marketing partnerships.

Google Inc., which is not a sponsor, on Friday unveiled a change to its search engine homepage showing the company's logo rendered in a rainbow flag – the symbol of gay pride – coinciding with the opening ceremony.

Bell's ad is far less overt than that; the scene with the kiss lasts less than a second. As a gesture, the ad is reminiscent of another very subtle show of support for gay rights – from Coca-Cola. In its Super Bowl ad, Coke featured a five-second clip showing a gay couple rollerskating with their daughter. The ad won praise from advocacy group GLAAD, even though the footage was brief.

Sponsors generally are allergic to controversy; companies prefer to keep the focus on the positive aspects of the events they sponsor. Most COC marketing partners have not changed their communications plans because of concerns over the gay rights issue in Russia. They prefer to emphasize their connection to the Canadian Olympic team, over any focus on the Games' host country.

With this ad, Bell could be attempting to have it both ways; a subtle show of goodwill for viewers sharp-eyed enough to catch it, but not overt enough to take distraction away from the feel-good message at the heart of its Olympic advertising. The question is, will those who notice it and who applaud the inclusive imagery, be left wishing Bell had done a bit more?

"The idea is that Bell is bringing Team Canada to everyone, so we're showing everyone," Bell spokesperson Mark Langton said in an e-mail, adding that there are approximately 50 scenes in the ad in total, filmed across Canada.

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