The World: Olympics advertising - more bronze than gold

Home-grown Beijing 2008 advertising is generally disappointing, while outsiders play it cautiously, Ella Fitzsimmons says.

High hopes, massive monetary investment, dedication and, yes, the occasional glimmer of talent put to great use, but all in all, a disappointing show across the board. No, that's not a clairvoyant assessment of the British squad's performance in this month's Olympics; but it's a fair appraisal of the state of advertising in China in the run-up to Beijing.

Like many a sporting fan, ad-watchers in China are left to lament what might have been. Beijing 2008 is, after all, the pre-eminent marketing opportunity of the early 21st century. Three weeks in the Chinese capital offer international brands the opportunity to cast off their woes and woo China's one billion consumers.

Chinese brands have an unparalleled opportunity to ally their brand message with the "One world, one dream" invitation of Bocog (Beijing organising committee of the Olympic games). Brands breaking in to new China, while new China's brands take over the world - surely a recipe for some stellar advertising.

What has in fact transpired is a mixed bag. TBWA\China's campaign for Adidas won a gold Lion in Cannes. It brings together all the visual tropes of the Olympics - supportive crowds, swathes of red, determined athletes - into a work that resonates with Chinese consumers and advertising experts alike.

But the Adidas work is not a fair indicator of the standard of work by agencies in China. "Honestly, the Olympics ads are no different than the rest of advertising in China - some are great, some mediocre and some absolutely dreadful," Michael Wood, the chief executive of Leo Burnett Hong Kong, says. This can be related to the limited talent pool. "In China today, money-in doesn't necessarily translate into creative output," Wood adds.

Sadly, much of that creative output is Hall of Shame-worthy. "Brands have been gripped by Olympic fever, so there's an overdose of Olympic imagery," Nick Barham, the planning director at Wieden & Kennedy China, says. "This has led to some ridiculous advertising - like the Siemens ad of a basketballer slam-dunking into a washing machine."

"There's too much similarity in the execution," Raymond Tao, the executive vice-president of O&M Advertising, China, says. "Just because you increase exposure, it doesn't mean you'll stand out."

"Olympics work is always tougher," Kel Hook, the managing director of Wieden & Kennedy China, reckons. The restrictions put in place by the IOC on use of logos and athletes obviously have some impact on creativity. "I think there is a general caution among all advertisers and censors to make sure things are done properly, as China is very much on show to the world," Andrew Meaden, the North Asia chief executive at MindShare, says.

The caution goes both ways, with international brands treating Chinese sentiments with kid gloves. In the face of an international outcry over Tibet, multinationals such as Coca-Cola show solidarity with China's hosting of the games in ads aimed at mainland consumers.

Tao is convinced the Sichuan earthquake changed the tone of Olympic advertising in China. "Absolutely - it made it more conservative," he believes. Even after the three days of national mourning were over, below-the-line activation was put off. "The torch relay was toned down, and celebrations held off for a long time."

Specific examples can be seen in Leo Burnett's ads for the Chinese sportswear manufacturer Li Ning: the original footage was re-cut, and set to sombre music.

"Sichuan didn't drive the creative work, but it did influence edits," Wood says.

Creatively, this cautious approach has resulted in a near-comic overexposure of two of China's biggest sporting stars: the NBA basketballer Yao Ming and homespun champion hurdler Liu Xiang. They're safe bets, with by far the highest recognition rates among all athletes. Celebrity endorsement is still regarded by many agencies as a sure-fire way to build brand credibility in Asia. Universal McCann's Media in Mind report showed that an astonishing 66 per cent of Chinese consumers prefer to buy celebrity endorsed products.

However, there is no denying that the aggressive over-use of, for instance, Liu is doing little to solidify a strong identity for the brands he endorses. The hurdler endorses milk, banks, TV channels, cars and credit cards - and the strain on his Olympic training is believed to be one of the reasons for Bocog's curb on non-sponsor access to athletes. "The over-exposure of stars is a real problem in Olympics advertising - when everybody uses Liu Xiang, nobody knows what he stands for," Tao says.

Why, then, have so many brands continued to use these sports stars as the pivot of their campaigns? "I think there is a degree of naivety by some clients in not understanding that these celebrities are overexposed," Meaden explains. Barham agrees, but also places some blame on agencies: "Look, you can't just add a celebrity instead of having an idea - but that's what a lot of agencies have done."

"With these one-off ads, where athletes are used to build association with the ideals of the Olympics, I just don't think you're going to see a lot of results. Where you will see results is with brands like Coca-Cola, where there's a long-term, build-up in which the Olympics are used intelligently," Wood says.

What about life after the Olympics? "Advertising budgets will come down," Hook believes. However, no major crash is expected. "Media owners' rates will have to come down, but I don't think creative agencies will feel the pinch," Wood says. "There will be a slowing of the rate of growth after the Olympics, but we still expect double-digit growth. We are predicting year-on-year growth of 22 per cent for this year and 20 per cent next year, so there will be a slowing of growth, but still very high growth."

As cracking the Chinese market remains a focus for multinationals, advertisers and agencies will have to learn from their stumbles at Beijing. "The real challenge for brands in China is, 'how do they communicate a strong brand idea?'," Hook asks. The run-up to the Olympics has shown most brands and agencies in China need to rethink the interaction between branding and advertising. And that both agencies and clients should let Liu retire from the endorsement game.