As Adidas stopped using Luis Suarez for World Cup marketing after the Uruguay striker received a four-month ban for biting an opponent, Netflix and McDonald's seized the opportunity for free publicity.
"Don't worry #Suarez, four months is plenty of time to devour House of Cards. One bite at a time," Netflix tweeted after the suspension was announced, referring to the online video service's political thriller.
Within an hour after the controversial June 24 match against Italy, the McDonald's Uruguay unit tweeted: "Hello @luis16suarez, if you are hungry come have a bite of a big Mac."
Hola @luis16suarez, si te quedaste con hambre vení a darle un mordisco a una BigMac ;)— McDonald's Uruguay (@McDonalds_Uy) June 24, 2014
Barilla Holding SpA, Royal Philips NV and Nando's Group Holdings chimed in with tweets and ads that are more than just schadenfreude. They show how marketers have honed their social-media skills to react immediately to events that consumers are talking about. The reward is visibility at a low cost -- the brands don't have to pay the athlete a cent.
"Such digital ambush marketing lets companies get a lot of attention in the blink of an eye," said Florian Krumrey, head of sponsoring and rights at Munich-based marketing company Serviceplan Group.
Puma, the sportswear company that supplies jerseys for the Italian soccer team, jumped on the bandwagon by tweeting an image of the team shirt and the slogan: "Players look damn good in those PUMA shirts. Hard to resist taking a bite." A spokesman for Puma, which also sponsors Uruguay, declined to comment.
Barilla tweeted an image of eleven pieces of pasta, one of them partially bitten off. Printed on top: "Bentornati A Casa!" (Welcome home).
Suarez was suspended for Uruguay's next nine international matches by the sport's governing body for biting Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini.
Sponsorship campaigns around sports stars often take as much as a year to set up and carry the risk that public perceptions of athletes change, Krumrey said. A downside for quick digital ads is that they don't increase brand value over the longer run the same way sponsorship deals and endorsements can, said Krumrey, a former ATP tennis player who recently retained German soccer team captain Philipp Lahm for a marketing campaign with insurer AOK.
Unlike Adidas, none of the companies piggybacking on the Suarez scandal sponsor the player. Still, the marketers' main goal for using such channels is attention and consumer reaction rather than cost savings, said Stephan Loerke, managing director at the World Federation of Advertisers, whose members include Diageo, Ikea Group and Microsoft.
"Digital marketing is increasingly happening in conversations where the content is relevant to people," Loerke said. "The main reason is to take advantage of new trends and dynamics rather than making marketing cheaper."
Barilla published the Suarez ad as part of a social-media campaign consisting of posts pegged to topical events, said Luca Di Leo, a spokesman for the pasta maker. Almost 900,000 people have viewed it, the highest number ever for such Barilla ads, he said. On Facebook, the ad received about 30,000 likes and it was shared about 8,000 times.
Luis Suarez in the moments after biting Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini. Photo / AP
The McDonald's tweet was an "isolated, one-off" thing and was meant to be "tongue in cheek," said Sam Fulton, a London-based spokeswoman for the company. A representative for Netflix declined to comment.
Sporting events have provided brands with rapid-fire marketing opportunities before. A 35-minute midgame power failure during last year's Super Bowl prompted marketers to start bidding on "power outage" as a search term on Twitter minutes after the lights went out. Mondelez International's digital ad agency, 360i, posted a picture of an Oreo cookie on Twitter with the tagline "You can still dunk in the dark," moving from concept to posting in five minutes.
Although quick-reaction campaigns often start on the Web, advertisers can still harness traditional media such as print. Philips's British unit ran an ad in London's Metro newspaper this week for air-pressured flossing device that read "Perfect if you have a bit of Italian stuck between your teeth."
"We wanted to have some fun, without making it personal," said Deneice Harwin, a company spokeswoman. The creative department was sparked by the fit between the product and the incident, she said.
Eataly, the Italian company that manages 28 food emporiums from New York to Florence, published a full-page ad in Italy's two main newspapers that read "Everyone wants to eat Italian" over an image of Chiellini showing the bite marks on his shoulder. An Eataly representative didn't immediately return a call seeking comment.
In Rio de Janeiro, where the World Cup final will be played on July 13, billboards that show the Uruguayan roaring have gone viral, with visitors flocking to take pictures of the themselves standing next to the ads.
Suarez was suspended twice before for biting rivals, once in 2010 while playing for Dutch team Ajax, and in 2013 while playing for Liverpool. He was elected the best player in the English league last season.
"It is always really important to make sure you don't offend or upset people," said Guy Carter, marketing director for Nando's international franchise. The South African fast-food chain posted on Facebook: "Suarez, why eat Italian when you can try something different?"
"We have also always felt that it is important to be the voice of the people and as long as you are saying what people are feeling and thinking, you should be OK," he said.