I don’t have Olympic Fever so much as a mild Olympic head cold. Part of this is due to other activities elbowing in on my Olympic intake - dodging snow, removing snow, shuffling plans in the wake of snow - but mostly I’d attribute it to narrative fatigue.
At this late point in the games, I cannot bear to hear another Great Story. You know, a Great Story about an athlete born into poverty or on the back seat of a gypsy cab or with an extraneous third nipple, one who transcends personal hardship and achieves athletic immortality on the biggest stage of all. The stories themselves are fine, lovely even; it’s the telling of them that has become an exercise in emotional one-upmanship. After all the schmaltz, I’d rather hear about an above-average talent who, thanks to his supportive, non-substance-abusing family’s vast wealth and contacts high within the State Department, was able to best stronger competitors who worked the graveyard shift at 7-Eleven to pay for rink time. At least the teller could relate that story without an ever-so-tasteful string quartet soundtrack or tight shots of tear-streaked cheeks.
Brand marketers hoping to forge an emotional bond, of course, either haven’t received that memo or have rejected it as the first sign of a post-Leno slide towards incivility. As a result, I was planning to devote today’s column to one of the more syrupy Olympic-themed series, the United Airlines-sponsored “Journey to Sochi,” to see, after years of overuse, if there’s anything to be gleaned from such an approach. The series, consisting of a smattering of “Behind the Scenes with…” mini-profiles and four longer ones, rolled out just in time for the Winter Games.
I got exactly 13 seconds into the first of the longer clips - the precise moment when its subject, women’s hockey player Hilary Knight, announced that “making the Olympic team was a dream come true” - before abandoning the idea. There is pap, there is pap that rises to the level of cliché, and then there is “accomplishing X was a dream come true.” You want to watch “Journey to Sochi,” knock yourself out. Feel free to let me know what I missed.
Instead, I went out in search of an Olympian-y campaign that wouldn’t make me question the venerable institution of marketing and the super-awesome country that birthed it - that’s America, punk - and I found one in an unlikely place: Royal Caribbean’s YouTube page. The cruise line’s “Caribbean Cup Challenge,” which debuted last month, features a trio of decorated summer Olympians (Tom Daley, Gabby Douglas and Ian Thorpe) competing to see who’s most skilled at circa-2014 cruise activities, like ziplining.
The series doesn’t break new creative ground - it’s basically a brand-safe version of every reality show in which comely young people engage in bland outdoors-y competition - and it took a small hit when Thorpe’s personal issues resurfaced publicly earlier this month. I’d nonetheless argue that it presents an easy blueprint for marketers, especially ones hoping to piggyback on the appeal of family-friendly Olympic athletes, going forward.
The genius lies in the simplicity. Take a handful of likable personalities, task them with road-testing your products or services, and film the proceedings for posterity. We learn nothing new about any of the three participants, who throw around adjectives like “amazing” and dutifully inject brand messages into their testimonial segments (Daley: “we found out that it was actually the biggest climbing wall at sea, actually three stories tall”). And some of the activities, like the sushi decorating challenge in which competitors are graded on “creativity, taste and presentation,” are almost willfully dopey.
It doesn’t matter. After watching “Caribbean Cup Challenge,” I don’t know which participant can most adeptly birth a soufflé - nor, for that matter, who “won” - but I know the activities that Royal Caribbean has to offer and that those activities are presented in a manner that’s both safe and appealing. I walk away from the series with a hugely positive impression of the Royal Caribbean cruise experience, especially as it pertains to the omnipresence of towel origami.
[By the way, if you ever invite me out for a fancy dinner at a restaurant with cloth-based wipery, and I’d like it if you did, be sure to ask me to create some napkin origami, a skill I honed during a long-ago stint as a banquet waiter. I’m… well, not quite the Michael Jordan of napkin origami, but maybe the Michael McDonald?]
It’s not possible for brands to introduce their American-values-embodying Winter Olympians this way before the games, what with the necessity of “training” and all. But next time out, here’s hoping that brands decide to leverage their opposite-of-cheap Olympics sponsorships a bit more brashly than they’ve done so far (which is to say: the slightest bit brashly). Going safe will lump you in with 320 other marketers and a network rights-holder that traffics in maudlin tripe. Wouldn’t you rather be the outlier?