Ambush Marketing: the evolution and uncertainties in preparation for Milan Cortina 2026

For events of a certain media importance, usually sports, companies that are used to investing in advertising compete for commercial partnerships with the organiser of the event, bearing considerable investments but also expecting a positive economic and image return.

It is clear that, by virtue of the most basic principles of competition, even companies that have not reached (or simply did not want to reach) any commercial partnership agreements with the organiser, are allowed to advertise their products by alluding to the event (so-called “smart marketing” or “real time marketing”). Such promotional initiatives encounter a limit and become unlawful if the company replaces itself in the public's perception as the sponsor or official licensee, thus damaging not only the company that has invested to secure the partnership but also the event's organisation, which is consequently forced to lower the fees of licences and sponsorships to make them more attractive.

These practices are called “Ambush Marketing”, a topic more relevant than ever given the upcoming Winter Olympics Milan Cortina 2026. As always, when it comes to major sporting events, the States involved in the organisation regulate the trickiest aspects with specific regulations; the Italian Government, for the occasion, issued Law Decree n. 16/2020 (the so-called “Ambush Marketing Decree”), converted into Law n. 31/2020, which has general application and is not limited to the 2026 Olympic Games.

Regarding this business practice, it should first be pointed out that to date there is no precise legal definition of ambush marketing; the expression has Anglo-Saxon origins and was coined for the first time by Jerry Welsh on the occasion of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, when the US multinational Kodak decided to sponsor television programmes related to the Olympics, crediting itself to the public as the official sponsor of the event even though it was not, unlike its competitor Fujifilm.

This expression therefore refers to all those situations in which a company attempts to exploit an event that has particular visibility to its own advantage, without, however, being linked to the organisation of the event.

Sometimes the so-called ambusher presents itself as the sponsor or official licensee of the event using signs, symbols, trademarks related to it. In Italy, it was the Court of Venice in 2005 that first recognised this unlawful conduct, prohibiting the famous Venetian company Benetton from using the term “olympic” on its clothing coincidentally introduced in proximity of the Turin 2006 Winter Olympic Games.

However, there are many ways in which ambush marketing takes place, and only rarely do these go so far as to explicitly recall the (usually well-known) distinctive signs associated with the event. More often, ambush marketing occurs in an indirect and veiled manner and is realised through the intensification by a company of advertising investments in conjunction with, or close to, the event, in order to dilute the official sponsorship of the event obtained by the competitor. For example, during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, instead of paying the approximately 50 million dollars required by the organisation for sponsorship, Nike set up a massive shop close to the sports facilities and covered the stadiums with its advertisements, thus deceptively suggesting that it was one of the official sponsors of the event. Lastly, in the spring of 2022, the AGCM sanctioned Zalando, which was not a sponsor of the UEFA EURO 2020, for having displayed during the event and close to the Football Village a huge billboard bearing the words "Who will be the winner?" and the flags of the participating countries, thus brazenly referring to the event and creating doubt in the public about the existence of a commercial relationship with the organiser UEFA, which in fact did not exist.

Sponsoring an event concurrent to the main event can also be a form of ambush marketing. Again, Nike in 2008 organised, at the same time as the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the “Nike + Human Race 2008”, a running race held in 25 countries for charity purposes but which had the deceitful intention of promoting the company by parasitically linking to the Olympic Games.

Another form of ambush marketing is carried out through surprise advertising initiatives during or close to the event. In this case, the ambusher's aim is not to make people believe that it has a partnership with the event organiser, but exclusively to make people talk about it. This is the case of Pringles, which during Wimbledon 2009, despite not being a sponsor, distributed packages outside the tournament venue bearing the words 'These Are Not Tennis Balls', playing on the similarity between the tube of chips and the one containing tennis balls and thus achieving a great return of image.

Finally, there is a conduct that at first sight might appear to be ambush marketing but which in reality is lawful and do not infringe others' rights, that occurs when one creates an indirect association with the event, for example by means of advertising campaigns in which well-known personalities who have previously participated in the event appear. Significant here is the case of Lay's, the chips company that on the occasion of the 2014 World Cup recruited footballers Fabio Cannavaro and Lionel Messi as testimonials, despite the fact that the official sponsor of the Italian national football team at the time was the competitor San Carlo. However, neither the Institute of Advertising Self-Discipline nor the Court of Turin decided to sanction the unlawful conduct in this case. Consistently with this decision, the regulations issued for Milan Cortina 2026 expressly exempt in fact conduct carried out in performance of sponsorship contracts concluded with individual athletes, teams or participants in one of the events.

In the light of the case law analysed, one now has to ask how far a company can go in advertising its products during events of great media resonance. The lack of a clear definition of ambush marketing and the vagueness of the criteria identified by the judges make it difficult to date to precisely identify the perimeter within which a company may lawfully move and make ambush advertising predictable and avoidable. Nor does the Ambush Marketing Decree already cited solve this problem.

In conclusion, in order to adequately protect the investments made by companies in the course of such events and avoid unpleasant surprises, it is hoped that the legislator will soon succeed in providing a regulatory definition of ambush marketing and clearly identify the requirements for its configurability.

In any case, to date there has been no ambush marketing to the 2026 Winter Olympics. We will see!