Let the Disambiguation Begin

Evasions, Allusions, and an SEO Nightmare

London: Big Ben | Houses of Parliament
The 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London begin this Friday.


The informational sentence above follows the terms established by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games for information sharing regarding said event. The author is in no way affiliated with the Olympics, said Committee, or any entity contracted with said sporting event and very much doubts anyone will think she is, but should there be any question, her views are not theirs and vice versa. The author is receiving no remuneration from any source for the above sentence, for which even her most benevolent client would not pay her a dime, as it has all the hard-thought-out quality of a line in a “Dick and Jane” book. Any proximity of terms in the above sentence is purely syntactic, not an attempt to piggyback profit or dodge taxes or whatever the entities formally associated with said event do when they affiliate themselves with it. The linkage to the Web site is per the specific guidelines set forth by the Committee for reference to the event. That they do seem to expect some sort of reference is rather surprising under the circumstances, but the author accepts that they do.

For their part, if any of the above-mentioned entities make use of the author’s writing beyond the above sentence (they can have it for free) or any photography within this site, she will be on them faster than Donald Trump can say “You’re fired.” He did not succeed in copyrighting that, by the way, so don’t even try it.

Stereotypes rarely apply to more than limited population of dedicated exhibitionists.

For instance, I am an American, but I don’t have cable TV and I’m not an avid, regular watcher of any athletics matches. It is, in fact, possible to be American and be such a renegade. I know many such others, and like me, they vote.

I generally tune in for bits of the Tour de France, Triple Crown horse racing, World Series baseball, and World Cup Soccer. Sometimes I may watch a whole Phillies game (not so much recently, for unfortunately comprehensible reasons) or track a team close to clinching a division. But I do quite nicely remaining unaware of most of it.

Still, every couple years, in winter and in summer, I buck my own trend and settle down to watch most of a healthy global competition between talented and dedicated athletes. Despite occasional doping scandals and committee bribery investigations, the overall contest has always resonated with words spoken by the late sportscaster Jim McKay that defined a significant part of my childhood: “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport … the thrill of victory … and the agony of defeat … the human drama of athletic competition….”

The line was the opening to ABC’s now-defunct Wide World of Sports, which was the only sports program my bookish father watched regularly – that, and the broader competition of the “youth of the world” called together in goodwill every four years, which I have still anticipated as an adult. Sometimes, looking forward to the contest has seemed a hopeful alternative to election-year diatribes, economic bellyaching, and the relentless global brutality that permeates so much of our news media.

London: GherkinThat is, until this year.

Having friends in the capital and a much-cherished history with Great Britain, I looked for information of this historic event with warmth and good wishes. When the first news began to come to my attention, oddly, it started in the business sector: announcement of plummeting of share prices for G4S PLC, one of the largest private-sector employers in the world, contracted and abysmally failing to provide security services for the international competition.

Three weeks before start time, the UK government scrambled to call in the military to fill the slots, and the phrase “boots on the ground” – not exactly a stellar marketing term beyond militia group supply chains – became the herald of media items pertaining to the competition as much as to Syria. When one includes the already-planned RAF jet fly-bys and sniper-filled helicopter patrols, the placement of surface-to-air missile launchers in neighborhoods, and the incursion into the Thames of huge naval vessels, a staggering 18,200 British military personnel now have become involved in this athletics competition some capacity – almost twice the number of troops deployed in theater in Afghanistan in 2011.

And in the intervening weeks, into this sci-fi/apocalyptic atmosphere has marched a new, Gestapo-like presence that is no less surreal: nearly 300 purple-capped “specialist enforcement officers.”

The brand police.

This may account for why, apart from assurances of the host country’s “military preparedness” and minor coverage of purchaser disgust at the mess created by authorized ticket seller CoSport, this year’s – er – collection of organized international athletic activities in England’s capital city hasn’t received widespread general media attention in the United States. A litigious people ourselves, we may well be terrified about how to cover the spectacle. And perhaps it also accounts for why the chair of the competition’s organizing committee (their name is also branded, I don’t want to take any chances) greeted reporters with assurances of the availability of cheap alcohol.

They’re going to need it.

London EyeIt is exceedingly challenging to talk about the Games-That-Must-Not-Be-Named – unless you are a multinational firm that paid to sponsor them. The list of branded terms includes the name of the host city, its organizing group, the current year (in all permutations), three elements on the precious metals market normally attributed to the awards given to athletes, and the name (and variations upon) of the tournament itself. The stringent trademarking of the last has resulted in a name change for a restaurant in the host city and a crackdown on an online group of knitters by the U.S. arm of the international group behind the athletics contest. Even Pippa Middleton has not escaped the scourge.

And of course, any logos associated with these athletic activities, historically or in their current incarnation, fall under an absolute taboo. Hence, the wildly earnest committee has struck down hula hoops in a circus act, at an estate agent, and in a lingerie store display, as well as the linked sausages of a butcher in Weymouth, because of their similarity to the contest’s globally familiar symbol. A cake-decorating competition by the British Sugarcraft Guild was forbidden to use the logo. School banners welcoming the sporting event are banned, and lecture series cannot refer to it by name.

Today came the announcement that the powers-that-be were dispatching 250 of their purple-capped militia (a tribute to Justin Bieber? did they get the cap rights from him?) to 28 sites within “event zones.” It is all eerily reminiscent of the Saudi Arabian religious police cracking down on red roses and greeting cards for Valentine’s Day.

Many anticipate a confrontation of titans between this zealous corporate regime and renowned urban artist and Oscar-nominee Banksy, who has already created challenging violations of the Brand Rule of Law for the Games-That-Must-Not-Be-Named (or “You Know What,” if you prefer). Artists certainly have not escaped interrogation and warning: legitimate street artist and workshop leader Darren Cullen has reported being told not to carry his painting gear until November and not to get within a mile of any venue related to the global competition.

London: Millennium BridgeMeanwhile, in true Resistance fashion, residents of the capital have sneaked verbally and allusively around the restrictions or flouted them altogether. The renowned off-licence Oddbins has now even launched a counteroffensive, promising to reward purchasers who flaunt non-sponsors’ logos. (In this, they have more latitude than the athletes themselves, who are not to refer to their own sponsors in their use of social media; nor are they to use any logos associated with “You Know What.”)

But the draconian approach this year’s host has adopted remains terrifically hard on small business owners. The arrival of an international sporting event should be a joyful time, especially in a period of economic hardship. Merchants have a unique opportunity to revel in an influx of new custom at their establishments. They should be basking in the national team ardor that makes people forget how they’re going to pay their credit card bills – the “buzz” that accompanies something different and happily conversation-worthy. It should be a wonderful break from years of Austerity for the Brits – whose prime minister apparently has committed them to nine more.

Instead, the run-up to the Games-That-Must-Not-Be-Named bears all the hallmarks of a steadily expanding police state, with a select handful of multinational firms benefiting while the local workers and entrepreneurs battle the event’s anticipated 17 days’ worth of strained public transportation and serious traffic jams. A rogues’ gallery of privileged financial elites – a manufacturer facing a potential ban of its product in New York City and the state of California’s declaration that one of its flavorings is a carcinogen; a fast-food chain whose name keeps surfacing in health reports as a contributor to obesity problems; a financial services corporation emerging once again from anti-trust litigation; and a chemical company determined by the U.S. government to have some measure of responsibility in 96 Superfund toxic waste sites – not only enjoy a monopoly on use of language and images associated with the nationwide event but also the enhanced protection of a ban on “anything that creates an association in the mind of consumers between a nonsponsor” and the event, as the New York Times reports.

You’d think it would be enough that the sponsoring fast-food purveyor has co-opted all rights to serve french fries at the sporting venues, except those specifically coupled in “fish and chips.” (No, you can’t ask a food vendor to hold the fish. You’re forcing him into rights infringements.) But by now, we should know that among the proprietary corporate class and their lawyers – to quote A Very Special House, one of my childhood favorites by Ruth Krauss and the late Maurice Sendak – “NOBODY ever says stop stop stop.”

(By the way, I hope Greece is paying attention. If I were them, I’d trademark that flag, certain sports, their artwork, and their ancient gods immediately. It might be an avenue out of their financial crisis.)

London: Tower BridgeMayor Boris Johnson – a bear of a man, doubtless worried not only about his bailiwick’s reputation but his political future as associated with the mayhem – has begun to warn of a need to halt the escalating “brand insanity.” And indeed, the organizing committee seemed to resist its own chair’s mad suggestion that spectators wearing clothing identifying non-sponsors would not be allowed entry.

I hope their calls are heeded. I feel for the athletes, the ceremony creator and artists, those who have traveled far to get a glimpse, and all the people of the nation who have celebrated and looked forward to hosting the competition.

The sadness about these Games-That-Must-Not-Be-Named stems particularly from how the international and city organizers, in their self-importance, have shown so much contempt toward consumers, small business owners, and residents of the host city. They have considered all these entities to be outside their “product” – indeed, threats to it – and have forgotten that, without them and without the athletes, there is no product to speak of.

If they keep up the approach, the only future references to “You Know What” will be nostalgic columns in a company newsletter that nobody reads.

That is, if the companies themselves weather the storm.