A middle-aged man in official-looking clothing marches down the street. He’s determined, on a mission. He spots his target, a group of unassuming teenage tourists from Seoul. He approaches, gives a stern talk with a furrowed brow and sends them off (sans jumpers with a sporty swoop).
A lesson learned, a rule enforced, a code maintained.
By now you’ve heard of the Olympic “brand police” – that hardened and roving unit of nearly 300 officers trained and licensed to kill (the spirit of) games-goers in London. They’ll be making the rounds on the high streets and at the events themselves – all to make sure competitors of big name sponsors don’t get eyeballs or airtime. They’ll scan the crowds for groups wearing contraband logos, or for companies touting official phrases without approval.
At the risk of comparing product placement with religious freedom, I can’t help but be reminded of those famously joy-killing chaps in Saudi Arabia: the mutaween – an Orwellian outfit if there ever was one. Members of the mutaween (or the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice) surf the Kingdom’s urban hotspots in search of Shariah non-compliant dress and behaviour.
A smart PR shop undoubtedly advised the House of Saud to tweak the unit’s old name; the “Prevention of Vice” is much softer than the “Elimination of Sin”. But it’s not clear what the hordes of purple-clad boys in London will be preventing – or eliminating. And though the bearded cops in Riyadh can arrest and imprison, their British counterparts have no such powers. It’s still unclear how the purging will happen in practice. Mixed messages from the committee haven’t helped to clarify things.
During the weekend I saw a big advertising display in a local storefront window. The words “2012″, “London” and “Olympics” were plastered everywhere. I don’t know what they were selling (paper? printers?), but I do know they weren’t a global billion-dollar conglomerate that churns out fries, shoes, or soda.
Such rule-breakers could get big penalties come next week. A combination of the words “gold”, “silver”, “bronze”, “sponsor”, “medals”, “summer”, “London”, “2012″, “games”, “Two Thousand and Twelve”, “2012″, and “Twenty-Twelve” could bring a £20,000 fine. As we run full-speed to the opening ceremony, I wonder how many shopkeepers and companies know this.
Of course, the Games wouldn’t happen at all without the big advertising money. Sponsors bankroll almost the whole operation. We know this and we largely accept it. But good advertising should be pleasant and unobtrusive, not invasive and all-consuming. So to the 300 enforcers of Sparta gearing up to fight the brand-violating hordes, maintain some semblance of logic and sanity when you go about your quest. And please, go easy on us.