A day before the Olympic torch was lit Friday in Beijing, two men in warm-ups, waving bouquets and wearing giant fake gold medals, ascended a podium on a hot street corner in Northeast Austin.
The podium was made of milk-jug crates, and the corner was outside Samsung Electronics’ semiconductor facility.
The mock ceremony was part of a demonstration by an environmental group designed to shower attention on Samsung’s competitors for offering to recycle televisions, which contain toxic components.
Samsung recycles its computer components but not its TVs.
Protesters thousands of miles from Beijing are using the games to draw attention to their causes. In Canada on Wednesday, protesters chained themselves to the Chinese embassy in Ottawa to show support for Tibet independence. In San Francisco, two dozen activists gathered outside the Chinese consulate to stage mock hangings, again for Tibet independence.
Over the past year, the Beijing Games have variously been described by interest groups and commentators as the Genocide Olympics for China’s alleged ties to Sudan, the Green Olympics by China itself for its efforts to clean its air, and the Tibet Olympics.
“As the first Olympics in a communist state since Moscow in 1980, a battle looms over the message of the 2008 games,” Jonathan Watts, the East Asia correspondent for the British paper The Guardian, wrote last year. “For the ruling party, it is the ultimate propaganda opportunity to show the government’s success in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. For Tibetan independence activists, human rights campaigners … persecuted peasants and environmentalists, it is a chance to expose the dark side of the planet’s biggest one-party state.”
Samsung is an official sponsor of the games, making it a special target for advocacy groups hoping to piggyback on Olympics media attention.
“It’s the day before the Olympics, and we want to send a message to Samsung that it’s losing the race for TV recycling,” said Robin Schneider, executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment. “It’s time for them to go for the gold.”
For the record, Samsung has not broken any laws. In a statement, the company said it’s committed to “responsible product design, energy efficiency and product recycling.”
Samsung also said that 93 percent of its televisions meet the government’s voluntary energy-star criteria for energy-efficient electronics. It said it is testing TV recycling programs in several states and will roll out broader programs.
For a nonprofit like the Texas Campaign for the Environment, it can be “difficult to make a point when you’re not the focus of the media attention but you’re in the larger panorama,” said Dave Junker, who teaches public relations in the University of Texas’ Advertising and Public Relations department. “It’s an opportunity to introduce a problem to a larger public that has not heard about the issue.”
This form of guerilla public relations, of co-opting an event like the Olympics, warned Junker, “can instill hostility or animosity if it’s not done tactfully or if it’s perceived to be unreasonable or a nuisance.”
The Samsung protest also illustrates the dangers of conventional sponsorship, says Brad Love, who teaches media campaign classes at UT. “Associating oneself with these particular games is a challenge even for a corporation because there’s a risk that the association will backfire.”