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Bejing 2008 sponsors face pressure over China's human rights reputation

February 29, 2008

Marketing Week, UK
Olympic sponsors, including Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Samsung and Adidas,
are coming under increasing pressure over their involvement with the
Beijing 2008 Games, amid criticisms of China's human rights and
foreign policy record.

But the sponsors are caught in a double bind. Yes, they want
associations with the Olympic ideals of peace, dignity and the
harmonious development of humanity through sport. And they do not mind
paying for it – they have shelled out up to $100m (£50m) apiece for
the privilege and will parade their associations at this year's
Beijing Games.

But, at the same time, their names are being dragged ever deeper into
protests about China's human rights at home and its policies in Tibet
and Darfur.

For some, this exemplifies the paradox at the heart of any corporate
social responsibility programme. It is easy for a company to declare
its commitment to a set of laudable ethical principles, but then the
company has to live up to them. Any lapse or perceived failure is
jumped on by critics who accuse the corporations of public
relations-led hypocrisy.

Attention has focused on Olympic sponsors since film director Steven
Spielberg resigned as artistic director to the Beijing Games earlier
this month. This was in protest at China's alleged failure to use its
influence with the Sudanese Government – a major trading partner – to
stop human rights abuses in Darfur.

Spielberg had come under pressure to resign from tinseltown activists
such as Mia Farrow, who lends her name to the Dream for Darfur
campaign and has dubbed Beijing the "genocide Olympics". She has
called for a boycott of sponsors.

Meanwhile, the Free Tibet campaign, which opposes China's occupation
of Tibet and represents the Dalai Lama, has slammed sponsors for
supporting the Games. A spokesman says: "If we sat down with
Coca-Cola, we would say you are lending your name to a regime with one
of the worst human rights records in the world, a regime that executes
more people than all other countries every year, which comes bottom on
freedom of speech.

"As a message to the commercial people, we say you are lending your
name to a human rights pariah. I would question the commercial wisdom
of being associated with such a regime."

The spokesman draws back from calling for a boycott of the sponsors,
but says the organisation is considering such a move.

One sponsorship source believes the public is highly unlikely to link
the sponsors directly with China's alleged human rights abuses, or
link the names of Coke or McDonald's with the occupation of Tibet.

But another points out that the top-level worldwide Olympic partners –
those already mentioned, plus others such as Johnson & Johnson, Kodak,
Visa, Panasonic, Atos Origin and Omega – are in a difficult position.

They are sponsoring the Olympics wherever the Games take place, not
Beijing. It is up to the Olympic organisers to protect their brands
from criticism, since they awarded the Games to China in 2001.

However, another sponsorship source puts a brave face on a possible
backlash against the sponsors. "China has already put some pressure on
Sudan over Darfur since the Spielberg resignation," he adds. "This is
the point of the Olympics – to try and make the world better and to
promote peace. These campaigns are helping that along and that is what
the sponsors buy into." It should be pointed out that there have been
reports this weekend of further aerial bombings in areas of Darfur
with civilian populations.

Giles Gibbons, managing partner at corporate responsibility
consultancy Good Business, says the source's argument sounds overly
optimistic: "The Olympics is a really difficult sponsorship at the
best of times. There are no perimeter hoardings allowed and the
branding is fairly intangible. Coming with the negative connotations
of China, it is going to be a difficult year for the sponsors."

He points to London's winning bid for the 2012 Games, which had social
responsibility at its heart, with an emphasis on developing young
people and the legacy the Games would leave in the local area. But he
adds: "It is difficult with Beijing. Most of the sponsors will find
the China factor very difficult to deal with. It is sensitive and they
are going to be tip-toeing around it."

A Coca-Cola spokeswoman says the company has regular dialogue with the
International Olympic Committee on such issues. She adds: "We do not
support or oppose individual countries, governments or political or
religious causes. We aim to strengthen communities around the world
through direct investment, employment, setting an example of best
practice in our operations, and upholding the highest standards of
corporate responsibility."

Olympic sponsors are discovering that corporate social responsibility
is a two-way street. They cannot hope to bask in the glow of
high-minded Olympic ideals without taking a principled stand on
China's human rights record. But, given that many of the sponsors do
increasing business in China, they can hardly criticise the regime
which enables them to engage in these activities.
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