Friday, 26 February 2010

The Marketing Power of Games Has Deep Roots

As the Winter Olympics draw to a close, there seems to be no doubt that they have been a success. By success, I do not mean Canada’s medal count, although it is impressive. I mean the use of the games as a marketing tool, a tool to send a message to the world. As we are now coming to know, these last two weeks have given unparalleled exposure to British Columbia and Canada that will help to boost tourism and investment for years to come. In recent years, of course, this concept has come to be known as event marketing. However, harnessing the power of humanity’s emotional connection with such games is not a new concept.

Many people do not know that the Olympics were not the only games in ancient times. Other centres throughout Greece such as Delphi, Corinth, and Athens had their own regularly-scheduled games and even artistic contests with prizes as valuable as for athletics. Some, like Corinth, were almost as big as the Olympics themselves. Often, the games were instituted ostensibly to honour a dead local hero. Alexander the Great, for example, created funeral games in Babylon in honour of his dead friend Hephaestion. They were no small potatoes. Alexander invited over 3000 athletes (our Winter Olympics had just over 2600)!

What all these games had in common was their expressed purpose of sharing the Greek cultural heritage, to bring Greeks together. Why? Because they never did have a formal “nation” and fate had scattered them literally to what were in those days the ends of the earth. From the huge crowds attending and watching our games, we know how well the Olympics still do this. But even the Greeks knew that more than mere patriotism could be squeezed from the emotion of athletic victory. Here’s an example.

In or around 278 BCE (Before Current/Christian Era), King Ptolemy II of Egypt began games called the Ptolemaieia in Alexandria, Egypt, in honour of his dead father, King Ptolemy I, one of Alexander’s generals. As with all the other games, he invited athletes and leaders from all over the world. In the inaugural games, he held what has come to be considered as the most spectacular parade in history, including anything since. The parade took at least an entire day to pass and displayed the wealth of the nation in pure gold (literally billions of dollars’ worth that included hundreds of gold prizes for victors), along with thousands of animals, mechanical marvels and floats, and a march past of over 80,000 soldiers. The purpose? To impress his adversaries with the power of Egypt. This was a political message, much like China expressed with the 2008 Olympics. In the case of the 2010 Winter Olympics, our real message to the world has been, “Come to work and play in beautiful British Columbia.”

We may not have owned the whole podium, but for two weeks we have certainly owned the media. That message has been received by the world loud and clear. Thanks, VANOC. You understand the power of athletic victory.

Job well done!

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Opening Ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver

Since 2008 it has been widely acknowledged that the magnitude and creativity of the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics may never be repeated. David Atkins, the Australian-based producer of the Vanouver Winter Olympics Opening and Closing Ceremonies wisely chose not to even attempt to compete.

As a much smaller-scale producer of corporate events, and one who has frequently tried to transform the elusive Canadian identity into a meaningful entertainment presentation for visitors, I understand the difficult task he was handed. While I would not class Friday's performance as the most imaginative, emotional, or technically complex Winter Olympics Opening, I have to give Atkins an "A" for effort. What was successful and what was not?

In spite of Atkins' vow not to compete with Beijing technologically, I give very high praise for the absolutely incredible programming of the digital lighting. I would have to say that this was the true star of the show, much more than any other element. It made a little - budget, of course - go a long way. Another technological accomplishment - unfortunately one that would later cause problems - was the raised floor of BC Place and the obviously complicated hydraulics installation underneath. This had to be difficult but undoubtedly necessary given the restrictions of the indoor stadium. The ceiling rigging was another accomplishment, with it being used for several interesting segments requiring raising and lowering the large concentric fabric curtain and for flying quite a few performers.

For certain, his subtle combinations of natural phenomena and the Canadian landscape with our cultural diversity was well done. For example, the opening arctic sequence was wonderful, as were most of the others such as the concept of autumn in eastern Canada mixed with step and tap dancing. It would have failed if it had just been the dancing but by combining the scenics with the dancing, Atkins managed to isolate the Canadian versions of the dances from their Irish/Scottish/French locales of origin.

I know a lot of people did not like the pop-stylized version of our anthem, but I enjoyed it; finally, something different. Come on people, you're going to get so many chances to sing along that surely you can tolerate something a little non-traditional. I also thoroughly enjoyed one of the final segments with a virtually unknown "slam poet," Shane Koyczan. It was a nice touch, again something a little different, and Mr. Koyczan had a great delivery, very emotional.

The pre-cultural segment of first nations performances was very inspired, with great staging and some semi-modern music and choreography, at least as much as the governing elders of each nation would presumably allow.

What was not so great? Well, it started with the four first nations leaders being late for their own show. Guys (the leaders), this did not ingratiate you to the public. It just made you look disorganized. This was followed by the raised totems, much too closely resembling giant dildos/phallic symbols. Surely someone could have seen the obvious comparisons long before they were used live.

Second, the extensive - almost complete - lip-synching and fake orchestra playing. Yes, they tried really hard to get it perfect, but there were still subtle clues here and there that gave it away. One not so subtle was the fiddle sequence. Having been part of my fair share of microphone problems in live shows I can understand why it was done. There may never be a perfect solution to this in these kinds of shows.

By now, everyone knows the fourth arm of the flame's cauldron did not rise. That's one of those technical problems that take about ten years off a producer's life. Could it have been prevented? Who knows? It sounds as if they tried everything and the mechanics were working earlier. Forunately, all the torchbearers had in-ear monitors so it did not look completely unplanned and, to the producer's credit, there was a backup plan.

My last gripe - albeit somewhat minor - is that I think they could have chosen a classier way to get Wayne Gretzky and the flame from BC Place to the permanent cauldron on the waterfront. Really, standing on the back of a truck driving through pouring rain? Once there, the whole thing looked good. It was just getting there. Although, when you think about it, what could be more Canadian than a pickup truck?

Overall? A good effort, ranking high, but certainly not the best I have seen.