But for activists, anything short of pulling financial support is not enough, according to human rights activist Teng Biao, a lawyer who has worked on cases involving Uyghur and co-founded two human rights NGOs when he was in Beijing. “What the Chinese government wants from the Olympic games is the endorsement from other companies,” said Biao, now a Pozen Visiting Scholar at the University of Chicago. “To go to Beijing, to support the games financially, is an endorsement.”
Corporations have been reluctant to take a stand. They are “being asked to play a political role that they’re not happy to play,” said Dali Yang, a professor at the University of Chicago whose research includes China’s political economy. While the sponsors are international brands that don’t necessarily have an outsized stake in Xinjiang, they also don’t want to alienate a big market–China.
The U.S. government has acted, announcing a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics at the end of 2021; although American athletes themselves are free to attend, there will be no official U.S. representation. This sentiment has permeated the West, including Britain, Australia and Canada among countries that announced diplomatic boycotts. Other countries such as New Zealand and Austria, according to Politico, have said that they’re not sending representation for COVID-19 reasons.
According to Jim Andrews, founder and CEO at A-Mark Partnership strategies, concentrating on athletes is the best move for sponsors since companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in their sponsorship deals. Andrews, who has consulted with Olympics sponsors in the past, noted that the lack of publicity from companies before the games could be because companies are holding on until athletes’ stories develop and then will “piggyback” on those.
He added that the choice to stay silent or focus on athletes also depends on whether the brand already had established relationships with athletes. “To do these things well you have to have planned them in advance,” he said, otherwise “it’s a little bit difficult to flip the switch.”
Procter & Gamble’s silence is particularly notable, given the company’s history of running heartstring-pulling Olympics ads. The company normally amps up its Olympics marketing more than three months before the Games. While Coke is forgoing a global campaign it is expected to engage in local marketing activities in China. Visa, another sponsor known for big Olympics efforts, did not respond to a request for comment on its plans.
Airbnb, an Olympic sponsor, also declined to comment on its plans. The travel brand was among the first companies targeted by activists. Some lawmakers have also pressured the company in the wake of a critical November report by Axios.The report alleged the brand rented properties in Xinjiang on land controlled by a group the U.S. government has connected to genocide.
Also declining to comment is Intel, whose Olympics sponsorship began in 2018. The company has come under heat before for taking a stance on Xinjiang: when the U.S. passed a law in July last year banning imports from Xinjiang, Intel was heavily criticized on Chinese social media after testifying before Congress that it did not source from Xinjiang, where there have been allegations of forced Uyghur labor. The company apologized to China late last year and was also found to have deleted references to Xinjiang in the letter it sent to its suppliers, according to the Wall Street Journal.
NBC, which broadcasts the Games in the U.S., acknowledged geopolitical issues in a press conference held Jan. 19, while pressing an argument for brands to continue to spend on the Olympics.
“When our advertisers decide to sit these Games out, it really hurts the athletes, because now they have to go compete with the Chinese and the Russians and athletes from other countries that already receive massive state funding,” said NBC’s Sports-Advertising Chief Dan Lovinger.
NBC representatives have not provided a detailed update on ad sales since telling reporters on Jan.19 that the pace of ad sales matched what it achieved heading into the PyeongChang Winter Olympics four years ago.
Salesforce, Toyota among those jumping in
Other sponsors are moving forward with their Olympics campaigns, although many of them have only recently publicized their efforts.