Masked athletes, empty sites, no fans: An Olympics like no other has kicked off in Tokyo, but for Canadian advertisers, it’s largely business as usual.

Canadian companies are sticking to their plans to promote their brands on coverage of the Summer Games despite growing fears that it will become a mainstream event as more athletes are positive for COVID-19.

The ongoing advertising plans of Canadian sponsors not only signal the considerable investment they have already made in the Games, but the continued benefits of being connected to an event with a strong audience and consumer engagement that can evoke sentiment. of patriotism and pride, according to experts.

While advertisers risk facing a potential backlash in the event of a severe outbreak, communications expert Andrew Simon said there is a strong benefit to supporting Canadian athletes.

“Nothing changes the narrative like a success,” said Simon, Global Chief Creative Officer and Creative Director for public relations firm Edelman Canada.

“The minute the first gold medal is won, the tone will be very different.”

Still, the mood heading into the first weekend of competition was grim, as rising infection rates risked overshadowing the world’s premier athletic competition.

Calls continued in Japan to cancel the Olympics, making advertising during the event an increasingly thorny proposition for business.

Major commercial sponsors in Japan like Panasonic, NEC, Bridgestone, Fujitsu and Toyota have taken steps to distance themselves from the Tokyo Games, with some even dropping all Olympic-themed TV commercials in the host country.

This unprecedented move highlights just how controversial the postponed 2020 Olympics have become, with growing fears on boards of directors of being linked to the pandemic-era event and the potential impact on reputation. of a brand.

“What matters is that (the brands) keep their reputation and that could mean their withdrawal,” said marketing expert Markus Giesler. “Toyota recognized this and pulled its advertisements in Japan, and it appeared to be the responsible thing to do.”

Still, Canadian advertisers say they have no plans to skip the event.

Toyota Canada’s advertising campaign “has already been launched nationally and will continue to run as planned with our media partners,” spokesperson Michael Bouliane said in an email.

Corporate sponsors, including Bell Canada and the Royal Bank of Canada, have also confirmed that their advertising plans are going according to plan.

The decision to continue advertising during the Olympics that sparked public health concerns and drew criticism around the world underscores the continued benefits of the global event for brands.

“The Olympics always have enormous value,” said Simon. “NBC has shown that its ad sales are stronger than ever. From a North American perspective, it’s full steam ahead.

NBC Universal said last year it sold more than $ 1.25 billion in advertising for the Tokyo Olympics, a record amount for the Games.

CBC, the Canadian rights holder to the Tokyo Olympics, declined to release financial information regarding the event’s domestic advertising revenue, claiming only that the sales figures are “competitive information.”

But Canadian advertisers have likely committed enough money not to pull out unless things get worse, Giesler said.

“The Olympics have been inscribed with values ​​and morals that have taken on an almost mythical status, and companies want to be associated with that,” he said. “They want those positive feelings of great competition and camaraderie to be reflected in their brand.”

But just because Canadian companies are rolling out their Olympic ads doesn’t mean they aren’t keeping a close eye on public opinion.

“They will constantly monitor the public conversation around the Olympics and anything that could potentially damage the brand,” Giesler said.

Indeed, if things go wrong, companies could be criticized for spending untold amounts of money on advertising when they could have helped with vaccine supplies and other measures to tackle the pandemic, Tandy Thomas said, Associate Professor in the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University.

But despite the potential pitfalls, she said advertising that praises the accomplishments of Canadian athletes continues to be a safe bet.

“The situation from all angles – from a health and safety point of view, from a marketing point of view – is fraught with dangers,” Thomas said. “But these young athletes are doing their best in this very difficult situation and having the support of their home country and their supporters is a good thing.”

She added: “A lot of people will say the Olympics shouldn’t be happening. But supporting Canadian athletes is never something that will be frowned upon.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on July 23, 2021.

Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press