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Top sponsor Toyota is withdrawing all Olympic TV commercials against the Games

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TOKYO – Toyota Motor said Monday it will not air any Olympic TV commercials in the future, despite the automaker being a high-ranking sponsor.

President Akio Toyoda will not attend the opening ceremony, the company also announced.

The decision signaled that the automaker is distancing itself from the Summer Olympics and Paralympics, which are slated to begin on Friday, but are facing a tepid public sentiment as they are being held in Tokyo amid a surge in coronavirus cases.

The fear that participating in the unpopular games could hurt rather than promote their public image is shared by other corporate sponsors. Food company Ajinomoto said last month it won’t run any Olympic commercials in July.

“As for our August commercials, we will make our decision by the end of July,” said a representative from Ajinomoto.

Various Toyota executives expressed frustration at the slow decision-making process by the International Olympic Committee and other organizers about spectator bans and the lack of communication with the main sponsors.

“Too often we get information from the news,” one executive told his staff. “What role do sponsors play?”

President Toyoda’s decision to skip the opening ceremony is seen as an expression of that disapproval.

Toyota signed a 10-year contract with the IOC as a top sponsor in 2015. The automaker originally planned to maximize this public relations opportunity, but “this time around, the company’s image could suffer,” said a Toyota insider.

The Toyota group had planned to run TV spots with the Olympic athletes that the group sponsors.

Masa Takaya, spokesman for the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, said it was up to each sponsor to determine their own advertising strategy, but acknowledged the “mixed” public sentiment towards the Games.

“These partners and sponsors must have had difficulty supporting Tokyo 2020 [after a one-year delay due to the pandemic]. … And this one year has been a pretty intense and challenging situation, but still these partners and sponsors have always been very supportive of Tokyo 2020, “Takaya told reporters on Monday.

“Of course … there is mixed public opinion on the games,” he added. “Every company has to make a decision on how it can get its message across to the public from a company perspective.”

Toyota will continue to provide 3,340 vehicles, including electric and fuel cell cars, to transport athletes and employees, almost as many as originally planned. It will also provide robots for use in various locations. The company will continue to promote the athletes it sponsors on its website.

Toyota Motor President Akio Toyoda (left) and International Paralympic Committee President Philip Craven shake hands after signing a partnership agreement in Tokyo in November 2015. © Reuters

The automaker raised concerns about the public reaction to the Olympics back in May when Japanese athletes were called on social media to speak out against the event.

“As a sponsor, it pains us that some people’s fear is turned against the athletes,” said Jun Nagata, Toyota’s chief communication officer, at the company’s earnings meeting on May 12. “We sincerely want all athletes and people to enjoy the Tokyo Games with confidence.”

Consumers criticize the Tokyo Olympics. Negative tweets containing the words “Olympics” and “Toyota” outperformed positive tweets containing those words earlier this month, according to a Nikkei study with Social Insight, a social media analytics tool developed by Tokyo-based startup User Local.

Other Olympic sponsors from Japan are also having a hard time responding.

The technology group NEC already broadcasts commercials for athletes. As for other advertisements, “day in, day out, we will make decisions based on coronavirus terms, rather than public opinion,” a NEC representative said.

Many executives withdraw from attending official events. Nippon Telegraph & Telephone and the Recruit Holdings staff group said they will not be attending due to the ban on spectators.

“Around April we received a request from the organizing committee about our executives’ participation in the opening and closing ceremonies, but we have chosen not to attend due to current events,” said a representative from Japan Post.

Instant noodle supplier Nissin Foods Holdings, personnel service provider Pasona Group and leading parcel delivery company Yamato Holdings also decided against the participation of executives in the opening ceremony.

“There is a risk that someone else will witness when I visit an Olympic venue,” said a manager.

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