The International Olympic Committee lashed out Friday at American Express Co., accusing the company of being a parasite at the Winter Games.
The argument over what the IOC called “ambush marketing” stems from an American Express television commercial promoting the availability of its services in Norway.
A voice-over says: “So if you’re traveling to Norway, you’ll need a passport but you don’t need a Visa.”
The ad angered both the IOC and rival company Visa, which is an official Olympic sponsor with exclusive rights to provide credit card services at Games venues.
American Express was giving a misleading impression it had an Olympic connection and had refused to withdraw the ad campaign, the IOC said. The committee said it would allow Visa to retaliate.
“This is the fifth successive Olympic Games in which American Express has falsely implied such a connection,” said IOC executive board member Dick Pound.
“Unfortunately, it appears to be American Express corporate policy, deliberately established at the highest level, to try to appropriate the goodwill of the Olympics without in any way supporting them.
“American Express does no service to itself, to its members, to athletes and the American public by pretending to hide behind customer service during a blatant parasite campaign.”
American Express responded by saying the IOC was engaged in a campaign of intimidation and vowed it would not bow to what it said were empty threats.
American Express spokesman Frank Vaccaro said in Lillehammer that the company was countering its rival’s campaign to lead the public to believe only Visa cards could be used at the Games.
Visa’s advertising suggested only its cards would be accepted at the Olympics, whereas American Express was welcomed at virtually all hotels, restaurants and tourist shops in Lillehammer, he said.
“American Express does not require permission from Visa or the IOC to serve our card members or to let them know we are present in Norway,” he said. “We have been in Norway since 1916 and operate customer services throughout the country.
“A $40-million sponsorship payment by Visa to the IOC will not change that,” he said. “Visa’s purchase of the Olympic rings is not a license to mislead consumers.”
Vaccaro said American Express advertising used no Olympic symbols or imagery nor did it depict any sports events.
Visa Senior Vice President John Bennett said in a statement: “Visa stands by the accuracy of our advertising. Visa is the only card accepted at the 1994 Olympic Winter Games.”
IOC Marketing Director Michael Payne said he believed American Express, a former Olympic sponsor, was regretting ending its connection with the Games.
“I think they’re feeling the pinch on sponsorship,” he said.
Payne said there had been other examples of ambush marketing at the Games. He said a third credit card company, Mastercard, had withdrawn 200,000 maps of the Olympic region.
Toyota Motor Corp. stopped an ad in Australia suggesting it supported the Australian team in Lillehammer after the country’s Olympic committee got a court injunction, he added.