03 October 2006

Can you be "ambushed" by a blimp?

Oh, the humanity!

Looking at the fuss in the media, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Holden Airship had collided with one of the MCG light towers and collapsed in flames onto the hallowed turf during the Toyota AFL Grand Final. But by simply hovering in the general vicinity of Jolimont, the General's blimp has cast a giant shadow - figuratively and literally - over current sponsorship practices.

Numerous commentators are having a field day, even invoking the current chestnut of "Australian values": according to Crikey.com.au, Peter Young of Cricket Australia says it was "just un-Australian (for Holden) to try and sneak a free ride off the back of someone else's work".

But then perhaps Toyota ought to know a free ride when it sees one. Only five years ago Toyota itself employed controversial tactics against Holden that were seen at the time as "ambush marketing", in a campaign I’m sure no-one at Holden has forgotten.

Champion golfer (and sometime pasta sauce maker!) Greg Norman was paid by Holden to endorse its Statesman luxury sedan range for several years but, in 2001, switched allegiance to the Toyota Avalon for a sum reckoned to be $10 million (as reported on Drive.com.au at the time). The TV advertisement that launched Norman’s involvement with Toyota featured a weekend hacker so over-awed by Norman’s arrival at the tee that he duffs his drive into the car park, smashing the window of a Holden Statesman. He apologises profusely to Norman, who reassures the wayward swinger that the Statesman is not his – "Mine’s the Toyota".

Holden certainly objected at the time, both publicly and directly (by letter) to Toyota. Comparisons were drawn with the famous Mortein vs Raid case that centred on John Laws' switch from one fly spray brand to another. Noises were made about the potential for Holden to sue Toyota for misleading and deceptive conduct under s52 of the Trade Practices Act, but (to my knowledge) it never made it anywhere near the Federal Court. Unlikely, anyway, as (in contrast to Mortein v Raid) the distinction between the two brands was made fairly explicit in the TVC, leaving little risk that consumers might be confused as to Norman's new allegiance or perceive any connection between Statesman and Toyota.

Anyway, I haven't yet seen any actual cries of "no fair" from Toyota about the Airship ambush, and any loud public expression of concern is, in my opinion, highly unlikely. Don't get me wrong - I am vehemently opposed to free riding in any form. But while the blimp may well have been sailing close to the wind, a strident complaint from Toyota could easily be seen as the pot calling the kettle black... and how un-Australian would that be?!

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