What is Ambush Marketing & Why it Causes so Much Controversy?

Sometimes controversy pays off when it comes to advertising, and ambush marketing is an excellent example of a controversial approach that tends to get results. But what is ambush marketing, and is it suitable for your company?

What is Ambush Marketing & Why it Causes so Much Controversy?

See what 1400+ marketers had to say about the top marketing trends for 2024.

A great digital marketing campaign is all about balance. 

It needs to be informative and on-brand. However, it also needs to be capable of jumping up, capturing people’s attention, and holding it long enough to get the message across.

Ambush marketing is one technique that’s terrific at doing this, but it doesn’t come without its share of controversy. 

So here’s a closer look at what it’s really all about, what the pros and cons are, and whether it could be a fit for your company’s next marketing effort.

    What is Ambush Marketing?

    Here in the digital age, competition has never been fiercer. 

    Although there are no hard and fast figures on the topic, experts believe the average American is exposed to between 4,000 and 10,000 advertisements every day. 

    That’s a lot of noise out there vying for your customer’s attention, so naturally, getting ahead of your competition is a must.

    Ambush marketing happens when one brand tries to get ahead of another by playing directly off of one of its campaigns.

    Ambush campaigns can take many forms, including jokes, plays on words, tricky visual imagery, and so forth. 

    Nevertheless, the intent is always the same — to get ahead of a competitor by deliberately hijacking their campaign to draw attention to one’s own brand.

    Is Ambush Marketing Legal?

    If you think ambush marketing sounds like it walks a tricky line between clever creativity and certain legal trouble, you’re right to do so. 

    If you take an ambush approach, there’s a genuine danger of infringing upon another company’s intellectual property

    It’s also possible to breach advertising regulations in certain countries or regions if you don’t do your homework first.

    But ambush marketing as a concept is perfectly legal, so long the marketer takes care not to break any crucial rules or infringe on anyone else’s copyright. 

    Some tips for staying on the straight and narrow include:

    • Avoiding the use of actual brand names, taglines, logos, and other branded material related to other companies or events.
    • Hinting at events, as opposed to heavily suggesting them in a way that makes it obvious what’s being referenced.

    Subtle is the name of the game when it comes to doing ambush marketing right if you decide to go that route with any of your future campaigns.

    Ambush Marketing: A Look at the Advantages and Disadvantages

    Of course, like every marketing strategy, ambush marketing has its advantages and drawbacks. 

    Let’s take a closer look at each, the better to help you figure out whether it sounds like a fit for your next marketing campaign. 

    The advantages include:

    • Flexibility and creative freedom.
    • Efficient at responding to specific campaigns.
    • Cost-effectiveness.
    • Generates attention for start-ups and other small companies.
    • Opportunities for marketing teams to depart from their usual style without undoing their branding efforts.

    And, as with all controversial techniques, there’s a downside to be aware of when considering ambush marketing.

    It includes essential considerations like:

    • Potentially violating the rights of other entities and events.
    • Reliance on what your competitors are putting out there.
    • Requires near-immediate action if the results are to be effective.
    • Can be tough to estimate and calculate return on investment.

    Types of Ambush Marketing

    Each ambush marketing campaign typically falls into one of two categories — indirect marketing or direct marketing. Here’s a look at each one.

    Indirect Ambush Marketing

    The indirect approach to ambush marketing is non-aggressive in nature. 

    A company simply attaches its marketing messages and branded content to an existing campaign via the fine art of suggestion. 

    This is often done using subtle references to the original campaign — like colors, wording, or vague imagery, to use just a few examples.

    The idea with indirect ambush marketing is never to entirely steal the spotlight from the other brand or entity referenced. 

    Instead, campaigns are meant to leverage the momentum of something that’s already working to gain additional exposure in the process.

    Direct Ambush Marketing

    Unlike the indirect variety of ambush marketing, direct ambush marketing is consciously aggressive, and the entire point is to steal the spotlight. 

    Brands that adopt this approach may even actively try to look like official sponsors of certain events when they have no legal right to so do. 

    Direct ambush marketing can be further broken down into even more subtypes.

    State of Marketing Report 2024
    • Coattail ambushing often involves a brand sponsoring an event participant in an attempt to be associated with the larger event.
    • Predatory ambushing involves one brand attacking another in an attempt to confuse as to which is a genuine sponsor.
    • Self-ambushing is when a brand goes outside of a sponsorship contract by acting in ways not mentioned or covered, exploiting a grey area.
    • Property infringement is the type of direct ambush marketing that directly uses or abuses another entity’s intellectual property, such as logos or slogans.

    4 Noteworthy Ambush Marketing Examples

    Although ambush marketing is controversial because of the fine line it walks, it can’t be argued that some of marketing’s most iconic brands have used it successfully over the years. 

    Here’s a closer look at some of the most memorably compelling examples.

    1. Nike

    Ambush marketing is a prevalent approach within the sports niche, and Nike knows how to do it right. 

    One of their most famous campaigns happened in 1996 at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. 

    Although Reebok was actually the official sponsor of the games, that hardly stopped Nike from trying to get in on the action.

    The iconic sports brand wound up putting up so many billboards and spreading its brand assets around the city to such an extent, many people were sure Nike was the actual sponsor. 

    Nike also featured Olympian Michael Johnson with a pair of gold Nikes hanging around his neck, which only added to people’s confusion.

    Ambush Marketing: Nike

    2. Samsung

    By now, everyone is familiar with what a big deal a new Apple product launch is. 

    This naturally includes some of Apple’s biggest competitors — like Samsung. 

    October of 2011 found Apple getting ready to launch its now-iconic iPhone 4S, but Samsung decided to take advantage of a golden opportunity to tempt Apple lovers into purchasing their latest Galaxy instead.

    By this, we mean Samsung decided to open a pop-up shop right next to an Apple Store in Sydney, Australia, at launch time. 

    They also offered their new Galaxy for only two Australian dollars — a hard deal to pass up in the face of the new iPhone’s $850 price tag. 

    Of course, Samsung took quite a hit offering their phone at such a low price, but it was an opportunity too fantastic to pass up.

    Ambush Marketing: Samsung

    3. Rona

    Speaking of brands that have successfully leveraged an Apple promotion to their own advantage, Canadian paint recycling brand Rona is a terrific example. 

    In 2010, Apple erected one of its iconic billboards supporting its rainbow-hued iPod Nano products. 

    The billboard, which went up right next to the Jacques Cartier Bridge, showed several colorful Nanos arranged in a line to resemble a rainbow and showcase their colors.

    Rona decided to seize a golden opportunity, creating and positioning an ad of their own directly underneath Apple’s, making it look as if a line of Rona paint cans were collecting the colorful runoff from the Nanos above. 

    To date, this is still considered one of the cleverest uses of ambush marketing — proof positive that sometimes the most straightforward ideas are the best ones.

    Ambush Marketing: Rona

    4. Audi and BMW

    Santa Monica, California, is more than just one of the best places in the country to soak up some rays.  

    It was also once the scene of one of marketing’s most famous ambush marketing face-offs

    It all started when automotive giant BMW hosted a Wisconsin rally that came complete with its own campaign. Its official slogan just happened to be: “A BMW rally with two nearby service centers. What’s next, paramedics at a chess tournament?

    Although not everyone quite understood what exactly that slogan meant, Audi saw a terrific opportunity to engage in some ambush marketing. 

    So they put up two billboards of their own that read: “Chess? No thanks, I’d rather be driving,” followed by, “Your move, BMW.”

    And BMW didn’t mind taking their opportunity to quip back at Audi with yet another billboard right across the street that read simply, “Checkmate.” 

    The good-natured feud continued a bit longer before fizzling out but remains a terrific example of ambush marketing at its cleverest and most creative.

    Audi and BMW

    Wrap Up: Learning from Others is a Stellar Way to Maximize Your Marketing Efforts

    Although the experts may be right when they say there are no new ideas under the sun, there are always terrific new ways to revamp or revisit classic ones. 

    When done ethically and skillfully, ambush marketing is an excellent example of how that can work within a marketing context.

    In fact, making sure to keep learning and growing based on knowledge others have discovered is an essential part of any marketing campaign, including content marketing. 

    So take the next step and check out our quick content maturity assessment to see how your current campaign is faring!

    You’ll learn what you’re doing right, as well as where you can improve for the good of your ongoing marketing goals.


    2024 State of Marketing Report

    Your golden ticket to crush your goals with data-driven insights!

    2024 State of Marketing Report

    Your golden ticket to crush your goals with data-driven insights!

    Shannon Hilson Rock author vector
    Rock Content Writer

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