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persuasion notebook

FILE - In this Jan. 27, 2016 file photo, samples of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, responsible for transmitting dengue and Zika, sit in a petri dish at the Fiocruz Institute in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil. SC Johnson announced June 30, 2016, that its OFF! brand had been named the official insect repellent supplier for the upcoming Rio Olympic Games. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)The Associated Press

Should the risk of contracting a horrific illness be interpreted as a terrific sponsorship opportunity?

Amid growing concerns about the spread of the Zika virus, which has been linked to serious birth defects in babies, S. C. Johnson & Son Inc. has become a sponsor of the Olympics in Brazil beginning next month. The maker of Off! insect repellent has signed a deal with the Rio 2016 organizing committee to be the first official bug spray of the Games.

S. C. Johnson is doing some good through the deal: it will donate 115,000 units of the bug spray likely a mix of aerosols, spritzers and towelettes – to be handed out to athletes, visitors, and people working and volunteering at the Games. It will also provide free samples of the product at Olympic venues.

"To continue our support in the fight against mosquito-borne diseases, we will use our 60 years of mosquito expertise to educate athletes, volunteers and attendees on how they can protect themselves from mosquito bites through tips from our experts," S.C. Johnson chairman and CEO Fisk Johnson said in a statement.

The bug spray is sold in more than 80,000 stores in Brazil, and will also be sold at official Rio 2016 stores.

But will the optics of the sponsorship do more harm than good? The public health crisis posed by Zika has caused some athletes – such as golfers Rory McIlroy and Jason Day, and American cyclist Tejay van Garderen – to announce they're skipping the Olympics. (Basketball superstar Stephen Curry cited injury as his reason for not participating, but also hinted at "other factors.") NBC host Savannah Guthrie, who is pregnant, also decided to stay home. And a group of scientists have signed an open letter to the World Health Organization urging that the Games should be held elsewhere, or postponed. Others have argued that the risk to travellers is actually quite low.

In this climate of concern, is it good PR to create a product promotion opportunity out of fears over visitors' medical safety? S. C. Johnson's deal is betting that it will create more goodwill by providing free protection to Games attendees, than concerns over what could be seen as crass opportunism.

The company told Bloomberg it began working in November to guarantee supplies amid the Zika scare and is boosting distribution, especially in Rio where it plans to have products available at every supermarket and pharmacy.

Zika is spread mostly by the Aedes mosquito. Recently, consumer advocacy publication Consumer Reports conducted tests on insect repellents for their level of protection against bites from the Aedes specifically. It found that Off! Deepwoods VIII protected against Aedes for eight hours; Off! FamilyCare II Clean Feel only protected against them for half an hour.

The company says it is still working out the details on which products specifically will be donated. The company also previously donated 125,000 units of Off! products to the International Federation of the Red Cross and Associacao Saude Crianca.