Ambush Marketing: What It Is & Why It Works

Dan Shewan
April 18, 2018

Ever found yourself telling someone about some good news you got, only for the other person to completely ignore what you said and start talking about themselves?

That’s a little what ambush marketing is like.

Ambush marketing

Image via Japanese Olympic Committee

Today we’ll be taking a look at ambush marketing – specifically, what it is, what it looks like, and why brands spend countless millions of dollars on glorified pissing contests.

We’ll be examining the advantages and disadvantages of ambush marketing, including some real-world examples of how ambush marketing has been utilized to great effect by some of the world’s best-known brands.

First up, a primer on the basics.

What Is Ambush Marketing?

Ambush marketing – also known as coat-tail marketing or predatory ambushing – is the practice of hijacking or coopting another advertiser’s campaign to raise awareness of another company or brand, often in the context of event sponsorships.

One of the earliest known examples of ambush marketing is the bitter feud that erupted between MasterCard and Visa during the 1992 Winter Olympics, which was held in the town of Albertville in southeastern France.

Having paid $20 million (approximately $35.5 million in 2018 dollars) for the privilege, Visa was the official credit card sponsor of the ’92 Winter Games. For months prior to games, Visa ran TV commercials advising American Express cardholders to leave their AmEx at home as “the Olympics don’t take American Express.”

Technically, this was true – tickets to the games could only be purchased with Visa credit cards. However, Visa’s aggressive ad campaign soon raised the ire of American Express, which claimed Visa’s ads were purposefully misleading by suggesting that American Express cards were not accepted anywhere at the ’92 Winter Games.

AmEx soon launched its own series of TV spots, which featured the slogan, “When you go to Spain, you’ll need a passport – but you don’t need a Visa,” a sly reference to the forthcoming Summer Games in Barcelona and a subtle dig at the company’s rival. American Express was accused by Visa of engaging in “parasite marketing,” which later gave rise to the slightly more palatable name of ambush marketing.

4 Real-World Ambush Marketing Examples

Now that we’ve looked at what ambush marketing is, it’s time to see some examples of this technique in action, from the inspired to the irreverent.

#1: BMW vs. Audi

Santa Monica, California, may be famous for its lengthy pier and near-perfect weather, but this affluent coastal city was also the battlefield upon which two of the world’s largest car manufacturers waged a war for billboard dominance.

The spat began soon after BMW hosted a rally in Wisconsin, an event that was publicized through an accompanying campaign. The slogan of the campaign was “A BMW rally with two nearby service centers. What’s next, paramedics at a chess tournament?”

Crappy, nonsensical slogans aside, Audi saw an opportunity to capitalize upon BMW’s campaign. In response to BMW’s ads, Audi purchased a billboard in Santa Monica advertising its new A4 sedan and mocking BMW’s slogan:

Ambush marketing Audi vs. BMW billboard war Santa Monica

Image via Jalopnik

Not long after the billboard above appeared in Santa Monica, Audi doubled down and erected another giant roadside provocation to BMW, while cleverly sticking to BMW’s regrettable chess theme:

Ambush marketing Audi vs. BMW billboard Your Move, BMW

Image via The Branding Journal

BMW didn’t take this attack lying down. In response, BMW purchased an enormous billboard across the street from Audi’s billboard:

Ambush marketing Audi vs. BMW billboard war Checkmate

Image via Jalopnik

By now, you’d think that two of the world’s largest vehicle manufacturers would have tired of their childish tit-for-tat.

They hadn’t.

After BMW erected its “Checkmate” billboard response, Audi upped its game again by launching yet another billboard ad with yet another witty chess-related quip. Ultimately, BMW won the day with its final, withering response:

Ambush marketing Audi vs. BMW billboard war blimp game over

Oh, and to really twist the knife, BMW actually tethered the blimp to Audi’s R8 billboard.

Savage.

#2: Paddy Power

Unlike our friends in the States, many of whom seem to have an irrational, almost phobic aversion to a friendly wager, my countrymen in Britain love a good bet. Walk down any high street in the U.K. and you’ll most likely see at least one or two bookmakers, among the best-known of which is Irish gambling chain Paddy Power.

Like so many of the most notorious ambush marketing campaigns, Paddy Power’s first foray into the exciting world of predatory ambushing took place during the Olympic Games – the London 2012 Games, to be precise.

Ambush marketing Paddy Power London 2012 billboard campaign

Image via AdAge

As the British capital geared up for the Games, Paddy Power launched a wide-scale billboard campaign across the city, claiming it was the “Official sponsor of the largest athletics event in London this year.” Below the bookmaker’s bold claim was a disclaimer that revealed Paddy Power was referring to the town of London, France –the event the ad referred to was not the Olympic Games, but rather a traditional egg-and-spoon race that Paddy Power really did sponsor.

The IOC took a predictably dim view of Paddy Power’s tongue-in-cheek campaign, and demanded the Irish bookie take down the ads immediately. Paddy Power challenged the IOC’s order in court, and ultimately won its fight against the IOC in a landmark ruling.

#3: Samsung vs. Apple

In October of 2011, Apple was preparing to launch the then-latest iteration of its flagship mobile device, the iPhone 4S.

The device launch was expected to be one of the most hotly anticipated tech events of the year – so Samsung decided to crash Apple’s party by erecting a pop-up store just a few feet away from Apple’s prestigious storefront in Sydney, Australia.

While eager Apple acolytes (Appolytes?) waited patiently to get their hands on the new iPhone, Samsung proceeded to sell its Galaxy SII device for just $2 AUS – mere pocket change compared to Apple’s $850 iPhone.

Ambush marketing Samsung vs. Apple Sydney pop-up store iPhone 4S launch

LOL. Image via Sydney Morning Herald.

Plenty of people managed to resist Samsung’s tempting offer, but many more still chose to walk away with a brand-new Samsung device rather than wait in line for the iPhone 4S.

Although Samsung took an enormous financial hit with its iPhone launch event stunt (which we’ll break down shortly), the incident proved just how easy it can be to ride the coat-tails of one of the world’s biggest brands.

#4: Rona and the iPods

When you’re one of the wealthiest companies in the history of mankind, you can’t help but attract attention. Case in point, another classic ambush marketing example of a company leveraging Apple’s advertising to its own ends.

Back in 2010, Apple’s colorful iPod Nano was among the most popular MP3 players on the market (just typing this makes me feel ancient). To advertise its iPod Nano line, Apple erected a billboard ad next to the Jacques Cartier Bridge in Montreal displaying the vividly colorful MP3 players in a satisfying rainbow-ribbon arrangement.

Ambush marketing Rona paint Apple iPod billboard

Image via Coloribus

Sensing an opportunity, Canadian paint and hardware firm Rona seized its chance. Rona soon erected its own billboard ad directly beneath Apple’s iPod ad to advertise the company’s new paint recycling program. The ad, which bore the slogan “Nous récupérons les restes de peinture,” or “We collect leftover paint,” was brilliantly simple, and the ad remains one of the best and most creative examples of ambush marketing in recent memory.

Why Use Ambush Marketing?

Now that we know what ambush marketing is, let’s take a look at some of the advantages of this type of advertising campaign.

Ambush Marketing Campaigns Can Be Very Clever

Something I personally love about ambush marketing campaigns is how cheeky they can be and the creative flexibility these campaigns offer.

Since most ambush marketing campaigns directly respond to or otherwise leverage an existing campaign by a close competitor, ambush campaigns can – and often, have to – be extremely creative. This includes everything from visual trickery to witty wordplay. As a result, ambush marketing campaigns are often a lot more memorable than a typical ad precisely because they’re unusually entertaining or clever.

Ambush marketing Newcastle Brown Ale chalice campaign

Subtle references and sly jokes are often integral to the success of ambush marketing campaigns. As we saw in the Audi vs. BMW example above, ambush campaigns often respond directly to one another, which can turn visual humor into a vital competitive edge.

Even if one ad is “better” than another, the funnier or cleverer ad will often be much more memorable, as Newcastle Brown Ale proved in the example ambush campaign above.

Ambush Marketing Campaigns Can Go Off-Script

When it comes to display advertising – online or IRL – cohesion is crucial. From enormous, towering billboards in Times Square to a mobile sidebar ad, brands have to ensure that their campaigns look, feel, and sound the same across all platforms.

Ambush campaigns, however, can get a little more creative.

Ambush marketing Fiat photobombs Volkswagen Swedish headquarters Google Maps

One of the key advantages of ambush marketing is that it allows brands to go off-script from their regular advertising campaigns, whether in style, tone, or content. Brands can and frequently do employ techniques that may be beyond the scope of a company’s established brand or advertising guidelines, affording the ambusher a great deal more creative freedom and flexibility.

Italian car manufacturer Fiat leveraged this principle to great effect in an impromptu ambush campaign back in 2013 when Fiat somehow managed to park a red Fiat 500 hatchback car on the front steps of Volkswagen’s Swedish headquarters – just in time for a Google Maps car to pass, which preserved Fiat’s little stunt for years in Google Maps results. (The offending little red Fiat is no longer immortalized in Maps results, as Google refreshed the old image with a newer image that was taken in June of 2017).

Ambush Marketing Can Change Consumer Perceptions

Another benefit of ambush marketing is that, done well, it can actually help brands cultivate and exhibit new brand attributes and values that consumers may not necessarily already associate with that advertiser.

Take South African airline Kulula, for example. To coincide with the 2010 World Cup, Kulula launched an ad campaign branding itself as the “Unofficial National Carrier of the You-Know-What,” a not-so-subtle reference to the forthcoming soccer tournament. The World Cup’s governing body, FIFA, demanded that Kulula cease the campaign immediately, claiming that the airline sought “to gain a promotional benefit for the Kulula brand by creating an unauthorized association with the 2010 FIFA World Cup.”

Ambush marketing Sepp Blatter Boston Terrier

Sepp Blatter, the real MVP

Though unhappy with FIFA’s decision, Kulula reluctantly complied with FIFA’s order. However, the airline wasn’t done quite yet. Shortly after the ads were pulled, Kulula said it would fly anyone named Sepp Blatter – the name of FIFA’s then-president – for free. Eventually, the airline located a Boston Terrier that shared a name with FIFA’s former president, and made the improbably named pup an unofficial mascot.

This campaign serves as a great example of how ambush marketing can help brands cultivate new brand values. Air travel is an insanely competitive industry, but Kulula’s ambush campaign not only gained the airline some invaluable publicity, but also advanced the idea that Kulula isn’t just another dry, boring airline.

What Are the Disadvantages of Ambush Marketing?

So, we’ve looked at how and when ambush marketing can work well, but this approach is not without its downsides.

Ambush Marketing Can Be Very Expensive

The main drawback of ambush marketing is that it has the potential to be very expensive.

Take the very public spat between Audi and BWM in Santa Monica above, for example. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that a billboard in Santa Monica costs $10,000 per month (not including actual design or printing costs). The fight between Audi and BMW lasted for several months and resulted in four separate billboard ads running simultaneously in the same geographic location, which almost definitely drove costs up even further. Then BMW went and put a zeppelin above all four billboards, which can cost anywhere between $500,000 and $5 million. So far, we’re talking almost $100,000 on the billboards alone, plus the cost of BMW’s blimp, plus all design and production costs.

Not exactly small change.

Ambush marketing Hindenburg disaster

The Hindenburg, also known as “your advertising budget”

Ambush marketing might seem like a great way to piggy-back on another brand’s efforts – and it can be – but it also demands a certain level of spend that puts this approach beyond the reach of smaller companies or newer, less established brands. That’s why ambush campaigns tend to be launched by well-funded brands at major international events like the Olympics or the Super Bowl – it’s so expensive, the return has to be worthwhile.

Calculating the ROI of Ambush Marketing Is Very Difficult

Another problem with ambush marketing campaigns is that calculating the ROI of such a campaign can be very difficult, if not actually impossible.

Take our Samsung hijacking example from earlier. In terms of the upfront overhead costs, Samsung’s little stunt in Sydney wasn’t that expensive. There was the cost of refurbishing the pop-up store itself and the wages of the Samsung employees who manned the store during the event.

The real cost of this ambush marketing campaign was the massive hit that Samsung took on each individual Galaxy SII device sold during the event.

Time for some napkin math!

First, we need to establish the base cost of a Galaxy SII device. For the sake of example, let’s say that a Samsung Galaxy SII cost $499, which is what the device retailed for at launch in many regions.

Next, we need to determine how many Galaxy SII devices Samsung sold during its ambush marketing event. For our purposes, we’ll say that the Samsung pop-up store sold 750 Galaxy SII devices that day.

Ambush marketing Samsung vs. Apple Sydney pop-up store iPhone 4S launch

Fans wait outside Samsung’s pop-up store in Sydney in 2011. Image via
The Next Web.

Finally, we need to figure out how much it cost Samsung to put on its event in Sydney. Let’s say Samsung hired two people to staff the pop-up store, paid each of them $15 per hour (ha!), and asked them to work for eight hours each. This means our staffing costs would be $240. Now let’s say that it cost Samsung $10,000 to actually refurbish the store. Using these figures, we can say that Samsung’s ambush marketing event cost $10,240.

If this were a typical ad campaign, we might use the following formula to come up with some numbers:

Value of a Galaxy SII multiplied by Number of devices sold minus Event overhead costs

Since we know that a Galaxy SII costs $499, that Samsung sold 750 devices during the event, and spent $10,240 to actually put on the event itself, the formula above would look like this:

499 x 750 – 10,240 = 364,010

So, using the monkey math above, we could say that Samsung’s ambush marketing campaign generated $364,010 in revenue – not bad for a pop-up store!

But wait a minute – wasn’t Samsung was selling its Galaxy SII devices for just $2? Now our math looks a lot less attractive:

2 x 750 – 10,240 = -8,740

Going by the actual numbers, Samsung actually lost almost $9,000 in revenue because it was selling its Galaxy SII devices for just two bucks..

This is how much it really cost Samsung to put on its event in Sydney.

For our purposes, we’re not actually interested in that figure. For a global brand like Samsung, $364,000 is couch change. What we want to know is whether the ambush marketing campaign was worth $364,000 – and this is where it gets complicated.

You can’t assign numerical values to intangible factors such as brand awareness or positive consumer sentiment, which makes it very difficult to effectively gauge the ROI of an ambush marketing campaign. It’s easier to gauge the overall reception of an ambush campaign by monitoring mainstream and social media for mentions, links, and other engagement metrics, but when you get down to brass tacks, proving the financial ROI of an ambush marketing campaign can be very difficult.

Time and Space Are Factors in Ambush Marketing

Another problem with ambush marketing campaigns is that in addition to the potential costs involved, these campaigns often require a relatively quick response or coordinated planning (or both) if they’re to work effectively or successfully leverage the target campaign to achieve its goal. To complicate matters further, the availability and price of advertising inventory can make or break an ambush marketing campaign before it even gets off the ground.

Take Newcastle Brown Ale’s “chalice” campaign above, for example. Although these ads were quite memorable, their effectiveness relied solely upon the neighboring Stella Artois ads they mocked; by themselves, Newcastle Brown Ale’s ads would only be memorable because they wouldn’t make any sense (and for potentially confusing American passersby with their use of the word “bollocks”).

This means that time and space are crucial factors in many ambush marketing campaigns. Unless you can be sure that the target of your ambush campaign will be there for a while – such as a sports stadium with a corporate sponsor or something similarly semi-permanent – you need to move quickly.

It’s a Trap!

Ambush marketing isn’t a viable marketing strategy for most businesses. The costs involved can be prohibitively expensive to all but the wealthiest of brands, but the underlying strategies beneath ambush marketing as a concept can be easily applied to your campaigns, from PPC campaigns on the search network to primarily visual campaigns on Facebook.

Hopefully, this post has given you some creative inspiration for new approaches you can take to your existing ads. Next time you sit down to write or optimize your next campaign, consider what you could learn from the examples above. You might not get to rub a competitor’s face in it with a gigantic billboard in Times Square, but you might be able to poke a sly dig at your competitors in your next Facebook campaign.

Dan Shewan

Originally from the U.K., Dan Shewan is a journalist and web content specialist who now lives and writes in New England. Dan’s work has appeared in a wide range of publications in print and online, including The Guardian, The Daily Beast, Pacific Standard magazine, The Independent, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and many other outlets.