So the movement to do… something about Russia’s insane new anti-gay laws via the Sochi Olympics is starting to pick up steam, but the unfortunate truth is that most of the ideas that are being generated are most likely to be ineffective. Stephen Fry’s open letter, for example, is eloquent and moving – but it is also directed at the wrong people. The British government doesn’t get to make decisions about Olympic management, nor does any other government for that matter. The International Olympic Committee quite obviously does not care a whit about public opinion – remember, we’re talking about the IOC which cheerfully went ahead with the last games in Russia despite everybody getting angry over the invasion of Afghanistan.
But the IOC, being a private organization run by oligarchs primarily concerned about subsidizing their own lifestyles, is concerned about money. And we know how they make money, because it is a matter of public record. Over 90% of Olympic revenue comes from two sources: sales of broadcasting rights and sponsorships. And those money sources are mostly other private companies. And private companies are vulnerable to boycotts – especially when we’re talking about the high-end, prominent sponsors who are officially partners with the Olympics and who pay tens of millions of dollars for the privilege. There’s even an easily-accessible list of the premium-level sponsors, who provide the majority of sponsorship funding:
Procter and Gamble
Now, some of those companies are so widely diversified that it’s difficult for consumers to avoid purchasing them entirely (particularly Dow and GE). But Coke, McDonald’s, Visa, Panasonic and Samsung are actually pretty easy to avoid: all of them have high-profile alternative competitors (Pepsi, Burger King, Mastercard, Sony and… Sony again, I guess… to name a few). If you want some supermarket brand orange juice buy Tropicana instead of Minute Maid. If you want a burger go get a Whopper rather than a Big Mac. (Or, you know, something good.) Charge things to your Discover card if you can find a place that takes Discover. Et cetera.
And don’t just not buy McDonald’s and Coke – don’t buy McDonald’s and Coke and tell them. What is McDonald’s going to do when it has ten thousand tweets – or a hundred thousand, or a million – directed at it along these lines:
@McDonalds Until you end your IOC sponsorship or until the IOC disavows the Sochi Olympics, I'm not buying any more food from you. Sorry.
— Christopher Bird (@mightygodking) August 8, 2013
And I am quite serious. I mean, I like McDonald’s every once in a while, but it’s not gonna kill me to not eat it. Not eating McD’s is the easiest thing in the world! And they know this. Ditto drinking Coke. Ditto charging to your Visa (well, assuming you can get an alternative card – I know a lot of people depend on credit). Atos is a bit more difficult to hit because they’re an IT company, but they’re an IT company that contracts out services to many governments, and that is something you can pressure your government about. (But really: stick with pressuring the companies directly, because direct is better than indirect.) And Tweets are literally the smallest thing you can do to communicate your displeasure with these companies. Sit down and write a letter, a real letter. (Companies react very strongly to large bags of angry mail. Remember that most of them have a “respond to all complaints” policy.)
The broadcasting works along the same lines except here the IOC’s revenue stream is even more concentrated. Really, if Americans want to kill the Sochi Olympics dead, they can just start Tweeting at (and mailing and phoning and so forth) NBC – the American broadcasting contract is worth a ridiculous amount of money. “Hey, I’m not going to watch the Sochi Olympics while Russia seems determined to ghettoize homosexuals” is a start. The Olympics are a perennial cash cow for NBC because they get billions in advertising revenue, which means activists can start targeting NBC’s revenue stream. All of this technically won’t hurt the IOC directly – after all, NBC has already paid for the Games – but it can mean lower bids in future for Olympic broadcasts, and that’s all that really needs to happen.
To sum up: If you’re just going to rant on the internet, nothing’s going to stop the Sochi Olympics from happening, because words are empty to people who care about nothing beyond the bottom line, and that is the International Olympic Committee in a nutshell. You get their attention by hurting their bottom line. The good news is this: they are remarkably vulnerable.