STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
There are four days to go at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, which means you can prepare for a final blizzard of TV commercials from the corporate sponsors.
NPR's Howard Berkes reports from Vancouver.
HOWARD BERKES: In downtown Vancouver, four floors of an office building serve as the Procter & Gamble Family Home, where Olympic athletes and their families and friends can get a makeover at the P&G salon.
INSKEEP: How do you like that? I tried to keep the integrity of how your overall hairstyle was.
BERKES: They can get their clothes washed at the Tide Laundry Center and belly up to the bar at the Pringle Zone for a snack.
BERKES: We have Blastin' Buffalo Wing, Dill Pickle, Smokin' Hot Ranch...
BERKES: There are 29 Pringle's flavors in all. And if the baby needs changing, there's the Pampers Village with Pampers sporting the five Olympic rings. P&G's Family Home isn't only designed to be a refuge for athletes and their families and friends, says corporate spokesman Dave McCracken.
DAVE MCCRACKEN: The Olympics really touches on our purpose of touching lives, improving life, but then there's also a very strong business build. This is the number one sport among women and the number two among men. It is the type of event that brings families together to watch the Olympics.
BERKES: And when they're watching TV together, they'll see emotional ads like this one with moms singing to their kids. It closes with a mom cheering her figure skater at the games.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)
Unidentified Group: (Singing) You'll never walk alone.
Unidentified Woman #3: P&G, proud sponsor of moms.
BERKES: There is a sober reality to this emotional branding, says Robert Barney of the International Center for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario.
ROBERT BARNEY: What they're really in for is to expand their brand, to protect their market share, and to get in ahead of their main competitors, because the Olympic movement gives them an exclusivity.
BERKES: The most exclusive Olympic deals go to the so-called top sponsors - nine or so companies paying as much as $20 million a year. P&G is not one of them, but the list includes Visa, Coke, Samsung and Panasonic. No sponsor reveals its actual costs or payback and payback is not guaranteed. Patrick Quinn is a sports marketing consultant and former athlete.
PATRICK QUINN: I mean, there's a risk if it's perceived by the public to be anything less than authentic. You know, you'd want to make sure that you're working with the right brands.
BERKES: Quinn is talking specifically about athletes and sponsors, but the same risk applies to corporations in the Olympics, and the best example of that may be the tangling of the five Olympic rings with the golden arches.
INSKEEP: Can I help you over here?
BERKES: This McDonald's at the main press center in Vancouver dispenses Big Macs, Egg McMuffins and Chicken McNuggets 24 hours a day during the games, as do the McDonald's in the villages where athletes stay. On the outside, billboards and TV ads deliver the McDonald's message. This ad in Canada features a McDonald's employee meeting speed skater Cindy Klassen, the nation's most decorated Olympian.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)
Unidentified Woman #5: Look, Egg McMuffins, my favorite.
CINDY KLASSEN: Me too.
Woman #5: Guess where I'm going?
KLASSEN: The Olympics?
Woman #5: Yeah, with McDonald's. I'll be working in the athletes' village.
KLASSEN: It's gonna be amazing.
Woman #5: And you're doing that speed skating thing, right?
Woman #5: That will be fun too.
BERKES: McDonald's is one of the top sponsors and is the official restaurant of the Olympics. Mary Dillon is the company's chief marketing officer.
MARY DILLON: What we expect to get is more people coming to our restaurants, more people watching the Olympics and associating the great, you know, spirit of the Olympics with our brand. And, you know, when you're a global brand like McDonald's, that's a good thing, to continue to build connections with things that are important to people. It's as simple as that.
BERKES: But the connections are neither natural nor benign to people who see an inherent mismatch with McDonald's and the Olympics. Gary Bennett is an obesity researcher at Duke University.
GARY BENNETT: It's, you know, it's just part of a broader marketing effort that I think is designed to try to use some of the healthiest and most active, the most fit among us to try to convince us that the fast food industry's products are perhaps more beneficial than I think they are.
BERKES: Olympic athletes, Bennett adds, might be able to quickly burn off the thousand calories in a Big Mac, medium Coke and medium fries, but not most of the rest of us. And he's especially distressed by this tag line in an ad for a new Chicken McNugget sauce.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)
Unidentified Man #1: So now you don't have to be an Olympic athlete to eat like one.
BENNETT: And I'm concerned about the potential, particularly for children, to believe that they too can be an Olympian by having a Happy Meal. And I think it's unlikely to be the case.
BERKES: McDonald's is aware, of course, of this kind of criticism and it's also using the Olympics to try to address it.
Unidentified Man #2: All right ready, set, go. Okay, go, here we go. All right, and there goes a strawberry. That's the...
BERKES: That's Ronald McDonald at the main press center of McDonald's doing a play by play for a smoothie contest. Gymnastics gold medallist Sean Johnson is paired with kids who won McDonald's trips to the Olympics. The contest is a publicity stunt for the new product, which was introduced at the Olympics to suggest a broader menu with healthy choices. Marketing chief Mary Dillon.
DILLON: The Olympic athletes are excellent example of how people can enjoy their favorite McDonald's foods as part of an active, balanced lifestyle.
BERKES: But not all athletes are ready for their morning McMuffin. Snarky snowboarder Hannah Teter snapped this McDonald's reference in response to a question about training.
HANNAH TETER: They have McDonald's at the athlete village? So I'll hit that up every morning? Not.
BERKES: But others couldn't be happier to have McDonald's in the village and in the Olympics. Jennifer Rodriguez is an American speed skater.
JENNIFER RODRIGUEZ: The first thing you eat after your event is you go in and get that hamburger or cheeseburger. It's like everybody treats themselves to McDonald's. And I think every athlete pretty much appreciates McDonald's being there.
BERKES: American athletes are especially tolerant of and grateful for corporate sponsorships. The United States is the only major competing nation without government funding for Olympic athletes and sports. It's all corporate. And that's okay with Chad Hedrick, a speed skater, who was with his infant daughter at P&G's Pampers Village when she took her first steps.
CHAD HEDRICK: Without corporate sponsors like this, these athletes struggle, and in return, it would be very hard to compete against these other nations in the world. So all these corporate sponsors are key for us to go out and perform the way that we do, and we're very grateful.
BERKES: Some say the Olympics lost the purity of sport when money and sponsorships became so important, and there's no doubt the games have changed. But before that, it was mostly aristocrats who could afford to compete.
Howard Berkes, NPR News, Vancouver.