The Rugby World Cup (RWC) is the showpiece event for rugby union, and this year’s world cup in Japan will be one of the most watched sporting events of the year.

The 2019 RWC’s global partners include multinational companies such as Heineken, Emirates, Land Rover and MasterCard, and official sponsors include Canon and NEC. These companies, together with official suppliers, licensees and broadcasters, have made significant investments to gain the exposure and goodwill that come with being associated with this major event. However, the value of this goodwill could be diluted by effective ambush-marketing strategies.

Ambush marketing is an intentional effort by a non-sponsor of a sporting event to create the impression of their being an official sponsor – without the organiser’s authorisation.

The ambush marketer seeks to weaken the campaigns of competitors who are official sponsors to the event, without paying a penny. Such campaigns confuse the public and take unfair advantage of the public and media interest in an event to obtain exposure for their products.

Examples from previous RWCs include that of O (a non-sponsor to the RWC 2015 in England) which gave away 50,000 branded T-shirts to fans in its “wear the rose” campaign; and Samsung (another non-sponsor to the RWC 2015), which received attention with its “School of Rugby” campaign, featuring British celebrities and former England rugby players in humorous videos about rugby.

During the 2011 RWC in New Zealand, employees of an adult-entertainment venue wore stilettos and All Black uniforms to hand out two-for-one flyers outside a Wellington stadium.

The majority of hosting nations, including SA, have enacted specific legislation to combat ambush marketing and to create so-called “clean zones” before the event. This legislation has proven extremely effective and provided the exclusivity for which the commercial partners have paid.

One of SA’s biggest selling points in its bid for the 2023 RWC was its strict ambush-marketing legislation, which was created in the lead-up to the Fifa 2010 Soccer World Cup. The Merchandise Marks Act, among others, made provision for “clean zones” and the Consumer Protection Act prevented ambush marketing by association.

This year’s host nation, Japan, has decided not to enact specific legislation to combat ambush marketing. The Japanese Rugby Union elected to rely on existing trade mark, competition and copyright legislation to combat the practice during the RWC. These laws, they said, prohibit most of the tactics used by ambush marketers.

And Japanese legislation has harsh penalties for any breach. Infringers of a trade mark right or copyright are punishable by imprisonment with work for up to 10 years, a fine not exceeding 10m yen (R1.2m), or a combination thereof.

So Springbok supporters travelling to Japan to see the Springboks beat the All Blacks in Yokohama, rather leave your branded banners at home and take your South African flags instead.