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LONDON (Reuters) - With the Winter Olympics in Sochi little more than 100 days away, sponsors face the challenge of getting their message across without falling foul of any consumer backlash against Russia's human rights record.
International concern over Russia's anti-gay propaganda law has prompted fears that the public might turn against brands such as Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Samsung that help to fund the Olympics in exchange for global marketing rights to use its name and five-ringed symbol.
Host nation Russia's image abroad has been further dented by its detention last month of 30 Greenpeace activists protesting about oil drilling in Arctic waters, and cases of black soccer players saying they have been racially abused by Russian fans.
"Sochi potentially is the danger Games," said Peter Walshe, a global account director of marketing company Millward Brown. "With these major world events, companies are looking for a halo effect for the brand. Sochi is big and high profile but such events are becoming platforms for social and political protest."
Attempts to divorce the Olympics from their political context have always proved futile but social media now makes it much simpler for protest groups to campaign remotely from a Games.
"Social media has transformed forever the level of risk that sponsors and athletes take into events," said Andy Sutherden, global head of sports at public relations firm Hill+Knowlton.
One current online campaign is urging Coca-Cola executives to speak out about the anti-gay propaganda law and put pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has staked huge personal prestige on running a successful Games.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has acknowledged that American sponsors in particular are concerned about the impact of the legislation on the Games to be held in southern Russia from February 7-23.
The law forbids the dissemination of information on homosexuality to minors. Critics cite it as evidence of a growing lack of tolerance for minorities in Russia, while Putin denies it is designed to curb gay rights.
The critics have been given fresh ammunition this week when Manchester City soccer player Yaya Toure, who is from Ivory Coast, accused CSKA Moscow fans of racial abuse during a Champions League match in the Russian capital.
Toure was quoted on Friday as saying that black players could boycott the 2018 World Cup, which Russia will also host, if it does not tackle racism in the stands. The European soccer federation UEFA has opened disciplinary proceedings against CSKA Moscow, which has denied Toure's accusation.
The Olympic movement is partly funded by 10 global sponsors who pay around $100 million each for the marketing rights over a four-year cycle covering a winter and summer Games.
Local organizers in Sochi have also done one-off deals with companies including Germany's Volkswagen which will be the official car supplier for the Games.
Sponsors have been at pains to stress their support for diversity without getting dragged into direct criticism of Russia.
"We do not condone human rights abuses, intolerance or discrimination of any kind anywhere in the world," Coca-Cola said in a recent statement. "As a sponsor since 1928, we believe the Olympic Games are a force for good that unite people through a common interest in sports."
Japan's Panasonic and South Korea's Samsung issued similar statements, underlining their belief in the Olympic spirit - the "feelgood" factor generated by major sports events which sponsors want to tap in to.
Sponsors have taken solace from an IOC statement in late July that the anti-gay propaganda legislation would not affect people attending or taking part in the Games.
"We are engaged with the IOC on this important topic and support its recent statement that sport is a human right and the Games should be open to all," Panasonic said in a statement.
The clock is ticking towards Sochi, which will be only 100 days away on October 29 and sponsors are starting to build up their marketing campaigns.
South Korea's Samsung said this week it would hand out its latest Galaxy smartphone to every competitor in Sochi and feature more than 80 athletes in its promotions.
The Winter Games do not have quite the same commercial appeal as a Summer Games or soccer World Cup, which can sustain longer running promotional campaigns.
Hill+Knowlton's Sutherden, who worked with Olympic sponsors Procter & Gamble, Omega and Visa on their London 2012 campaigns, said it was important for companies to time their marketing campaigns to ensure they were fresh as attention focuses on Sochi after Christmas.
Sutherden felt companies should remind Russia that its original aim of hosting the Games, on which it has spent $50 billion, was to project itself on the global stage as a modern and forward-looking nation. "My advice to sponsors would be to re-read the bid campaign book and to help Russia to celebrate what it wants to be remembered for," he said.
However, he said companies should be aware of the dangers of tying their brands to sports events in countries like Russia and Brazil, which will host the 2014 soccer World Cup and the summer Olympics in Rio two years later. Brazil was rocked by mass protests over inequality earlier this year when it staged the Confederations Cup, a warm-up for the World Cup.
"Sochi is going to herald en era of increased reputational risk of being associated with high profile sports events."
editing by David Stamp