How to Avoid an Advertising Mess(i) this World Cup…

The FIFA World Cup 2018 has finally kicked off!

Across the land, hordes of people descend on pubs and crowd around TV screens. It’s that time again where the office sweepstake does the rounds; the games from the night before are scrutinised amongst friends and colleagues; and heated debates ensue over the ref’s dodgy decisions, ‘helped’ this year by our new friend VAR. For those stuck in the office during a game, a permanent BBC sport tab is left open in the internet browser, being refreshed every 5 minutes.

If you have or are planning to tap into this wave of emotion – and dare we say optimism - to promote your brand, be aware that FIFA is extremely hot on ambush marketing and has a strict and lengthy set of rules about how its ‘Official Marks’ may be used. As is common for sporting events of this stature (like the Olympics) the host nation has adopted national laws to recognise FIFA’s rights in the tournament.

So if you’re running any kind of advertising campaign or promotion to take advantage of World Cup fever, some tactical know-how may assist to avoid both FIFA’s red card and any reputational harm to your brand from adverse publicity.

Freeths’ IP & Media pundits offer some practical tips to guide you during this prestigious tournament.

The Greatest Show on Earth!

The FIFA World Cup is the largest sporting event in the world. Nearly half the world’s population tune in to catch the action. FIFA charge significant sums for official partnerships and sponsorship. In fact, the money made from marketing rights alone makes up nearly 30% of FIFA’s annual revenue.

Official sponsors have paid generously, with the six top partners (Adidas, Kia/Hyundai, Emirates, Coca-Cola, Sony and Visa) paying a combined total of around $177 million to FIFA.

In return, they are given the exclusive right to use FIFA’s intellectual property and to use the tournament as a marketing vehicle to promote their businesses as they see fit. However, to justify the kind of fees paid, FIFA have to police the use of their IP vigorously and prevent those who are not official sponsors from riding on the coattails.

FIFA's IP Manual

FIFA have a whole section on their website detailing their rights, which include trade marks such as FIFA, WORLD CUP 2018 and RUSSIA 2018, together with a range of registered and unregistered designs and copyright subsisting in works such as posters, emblems and mascots.

They have also produced guidelines for the general public that offer advice on what is and what is not deemed acceptable regarding use of ‘Official Marks’ and marketing activities. Companies which are not official sponsors, may not engage in promotional activities which imply a ‘commercial association’ between their company or brand and the World Cup.

Take a look at the guidelines here.


FIFA’s strict front line has not prevented companies in the past from pulling some pretty opportunistic stunts.

During the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, Bavaria Beer recruited models to disguise themselves as Danish fans and seek entry into a match, only to reveal their promotional t-shirts once the match began. The cameras picked up on it of course and Bavaria succeeded in getting some prime time advertising. This episode led to the South African authorities making arrests, as well as the sacking of the TV pundit Robbie Earle, who had apparently supplied the tickets. Official beer sponsor Budweiser was not happy and kicked off big time…Even at home, there were examples of high-profile campaigns in 2010 by non-sponsors trying to leverage off the World Cup – from Walkers’ World Cup of Flavours and Pepsi’s ‘Oh Africa’ to KitKat’s ‘Cross your fingers’ campaign.

The "Social" Ambush and Activia's Lucky Strike

The Brazil 2014 World Cup saw the rise of the ‘social’ ambush with numerous companies exploiting the social influence of the event to their advantage, including Specsavers and Peperami opportunistically posting rather hilarious memes relating to Louis Suarez biting the shoulder of Italian player Giorgio Chiellini.

Activia's collaboration with Shakira on the video "La La La" was the world’s most shared advert of 2014 as it attracted more than 5.8 million shares across Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere. The football themed video featured some of the world’s highest profile players and encouraged public support for the World Food Programme’s school meals initiative. However, Activia was not an official World Cup sponsor. Despite this, Activia struck gold, with FIFA selecting “La-La-La” as an official tune for Brazil 2014, meaning that the viral music video appeared like an incredibly authentic, official campaign.

Get Your Tactics Right

So, what can we learn from the World Cups of the past? England are bad at penalties? No, you knew that, but from an advertising perspective, if you are considering a campaign linked to the World Cup, in addition to avoiding use of the ‘Official Marks’ detailed in FIFA’s guidelines, it is important to ensure that the advertising does not mislead people into thinking there is a connection between the brand advertised and the event when there is none.

So what can you do? The key is to be smart in your advertising. If there is only a minor allusion or wave to the event, the risk of legal consequences will be much lower. In the context of this World Cup in Russia, this might be the use of generic references to football themes, or to Russian culture or that of another participating nation. Use of these elements alone is unlikely to be problematic. Here are some examples:

The Language of the Beautiful Game

Man of the match, last minute goal, victory, defeat, playing, corners, red cards, penalties, referee, shooting, scoring, winning, a must-win game, a game of two halves, off-side, VAR…As a well-known presenter said recently of a match dominated by dubious video assistant refereeing decisions… “tonight’s game was an absolute VARse! ”Other than a play on language, you can use generic football imagery, team colours and even consider promotions that give away football themed products like balls, drink flasks, scarves and t-shirts (provided they don’t feature FIFA trade marks). It’s all about making the connection implicit rather than explicit and making the message catchy and memorable so that it works in the context of your advertising or campaign.

Embrace Diversity32 nations qualified for World Cup 2018. Some will be flying home very soon but most of the favourites are still in action. Think about making associations with a country and its culture: Brazilian sambas and carnivals, Russian vodka and matryoshka dolls, England and half time cups of tea. Each country has something amazing to offer. Embrace that diversity.


Emojis may be your unlikely ally. They include smiling, crying, laughing, thinking faces; flags; animals; and all sorts of other icons. Emojis are an easily accessible, recognisable, and eye-catching tool for conveying messages without using words; they are a fantastic means of spreading word of your business or campaign amongst a wide audience.  

Our Pundits' Top Tips

Freeths' IP & Media Team specialises in the law and practice of Intellectual Property, Reputation Protection, and Advertising.

We have the winning formation to guide you through your World Cup (ad)ventures.

Contact us on 0345 077 9652 or email us via

The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.

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