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Advertisers Walk Fine Line With Olympics Trying To Catch The Spirit And Not Be Sappy Is Delicate Task

The hazards of the Winter Olympics go well beyond tumbling down a snowy slope, missing a triple lutz or losing a gold medal by a hundredth of a second.

For TV advertisers, the risks include trying to tug one too many heartstrings, latching onto a few too many Olympic stars, getting mired in cliches or blending in so completely with the drama that the product gets lost.

“If you’re trying for the inspiration of the Olympic spirit, it’s pretty easy to go over the top with it and make it almost melodramatic and sappy,” said Kathryn Reith, a spokeswoman for Nike, which is among more than 40 major advertisers that will fill the 128 hours of CBS coverage with hundreds of ads. “The danger is that people will just tune the ad out.”

So some advertisers are trying to step up the humor, inject some clever twists, play down the Olympic connection or even add poetry.

Nike commissioned poems from professional and high school poets on Olympic themes and athletes including downhill skier Picabo Street, hockey player Cammi Granato and basketball player Dawn Staley. The result: offbeat poetry-video ads. “If there was a scary dictator named Picabo Street, the name might remind us of gasoline prices … but when a champion has that name, it’s a whole different kettle of fish,” goes one poem in an ad by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners.

IBM is using little-known Olympic athletes in its ads by Ogilvy & Mather as a way to focus on the company’s tracking of events on its Web site.

Most of what Anheuser-Busch is airing is unrelated to the Olympics - including more frogs ads - although one touchy-feely spot stars a colt that hopes to grow up to be part of the team of Budweiser Clydesdales, just as young athletes aspire to become Olympians.

“The marketplace is very crowded with advertisers who try to drape themselves with the Olympic flag,” said Bob Lachky, vice president for brand management at Budweiser. “We no longer look at the Olympics or Super Bowl as an event that must demand tailored advertising.”

As it did in the 1996 games, Coca-Cola is focusing on fans rather than sports stars, and it again is stressing the red color of its labels, though critics panned the Super Bowl “born red” spot. One new ad, by Wieden & Kennedy, has flashing red lights and frenetic hockey scenes.

Not that there is any shortage of Olympic stars in commercials. Minute Maid has signed up a whole mountain of sports stars.

Both Nike and AT&T; are running spots featuring Granato, captain of the U.S. women’s ice hockey team. The AT&T; ad starts with video clips of Granato as a child playing hockey on a snowy lawn with her family. The spot by Foote Cone & Belding moves to scenes of her on the go: at an airport, on a treadmill, using the Internet and phones.

“If you’re going to display athletes, and clearly this is a time to do that, you need to emphasize the person under the uniform and not the sweat on it,” said Burke Stinson, a spokesman for AT&T; in Basking Ridge, N.J.

AT&T; and many advertisers are featuring women prominently.

Ford is featuring women in half of the six spots it is running in the Olympics as part of a new ad campaign. One ad promotes the Race for the Cure breast cancer fund-raiser.

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