A confession: I know nothing about advertising, except perhaps from what I’ve picked up watching Mad Men over the last few years.

I, probably like a lot of people, still don’t quite get the ultimate point of this multi-billion (trillion? who knows?) dollar industry. In my pre-Baudrillardian head, advertising is still a means for companies to make a pitch to consumers as to why their particular product is better than all the other similar products offered by their competitors.

But since most consumers are in on the idea that advertisements are inherently biased (duh), they can’t really be trusted to fairly sell themselves (why would State Farm lie to grandma?). Companies know this, for the most part. So today, instead, advertisements are meant to generate or maintain “brand awareness.”

From a practical point of view, this means advertisers now speak in fairly intimate terms about their craft. Here’s Kraft for example on their strategy in promoting a ‘Hockeyville’ contest which “award[ed] a small community $100,000 in hockey arena upgrades,” according to this Globe and Mail article from 2011:

Kraft’s results suggest there’s a bottomless reserve of goodwill among Canadians for marketers who know how to play the hockey card smartly. The company measures 10 so-called “core values,” which they claim have all seen increases since the beginning of Hockeyville. The number of respondents who agree with the statement, “Kraft has great community spirit,” is up 93 per cent over the past two years; those who believe Kraft “actively cares and supports my community,” increased 152 per cent; and those who agree that Kraft “shares similar values with me,” was up 36 per cent.

Most importantly, Kraft claims its baseline sales during the eight-week Hockeyville promotion are up 6 per cent.

This 6% figure isn’t the greatest analytic to go on just on face value. There are all sorts of questions I have about it, like: how strong are the indicators that Kraft’s boost in sales are directly related to the fact that consumers believe the company “actively cares and supports [their] community”, or because Kraft “has great community spirit?” Does this effect carry over at the subliminal level when people are deciding whether to feed their children processed cheese meals? Do consumers make an unconscious decision in a nameless grocery store based on a cozy association fueled by a community-based campaign?

It’s the lack of a clear answer here that makes this business a bit…murky, and magical. Anyway, here we are. Ads are meant to make you aware that a brand exists, that a brand shares your values, that a brand will make you better person.

The problem is certain brands have gone to such lengths to make everyone aware of them it’s become pretty difficult to see them at all. That’s why the infraction of new Bayern Munich signins Mario Goetze and Jan Kirchoff is so interesting. Here’s Dirty Tackle’s Brooks Peck:

Bayern Munich showed off new additions Mario Gotze (above) and Jan Kirchhoff (below) on Tuesday. Normally a press conference to unveil two new signings at club that just won the treble only affords them another reason to smile, but this one made Bayern apologize to kitmaker and minority owner Adidas.

Both Gotze and Kirchhoff, who have personal endorsement deals with Nike, wore Nike T-shirts to the event, which violated Bayern’s contractual agreement with Adidas. “The pictures from today’s press conference with Mario Gotze have negatively surprised us,” said Adidas spokesman Oliver Bruggen according to Spox.com. “Contractually that is not permissible because it is an official event of Adidas partner Bayern Munich. We have already discussed with Bayern Munich.”

What is even more incredible is the statement from Bayern’s media director, Markus Horwick. He apologized to Adidas, who are 9% stakeholders in the club: “These T-shirts have gotten by us in the general hustle and bustle and we regret that very much.”

Even so, how, in a club with a supposedly iron-clad historical link to Adidas, could two of the team’s newest signings get away with wearing t-shirts emblazoned (and not in the cliched sense, but indeed emblazoned) with giant Nike swooshes at a press conference which included the presentation of an Adidas shirt?

I’m going to take a wild guess and say the reason had little to do with the “general hustle and bustle” and much more to do with the fact that certain sporting brands are now so ever-present, they’ve become, for all intents and purposes, invisible. Particularly when worn by athletes, buried as they are under a mountain of promotional swag. That means this should be viewed as a debacle in part for Nike as well as Adidas (unless this was some sort of sponsorship sabotage). No one saw the Nike swoosh on Goetze’s chest because it wasn’t there. It bled into the background.

This is a far cry from the days of the bitter football brand rivalries. Johan Cruyff admirers will of course remember the story of his two-striped Adidas kit with Holland for the 1974 World Cup. Cruyff had a shoe-deal with Puma, and so out of loyalty to his sponsor, he insisted on playing with two stripes on his sleeves. The tale has remained in football lore for years, and is still referred to as an example of Cruyff’s “independence,” as if Puma was and is a mom and pop organization without a penny or care in the world.

Now, to be fair to both Nike, Adidas and other shirt manufacturers, they’re not really sponsors in the same way that a company that pays hand-over-fist to have their logo on the front of a club shirt is a sponsor. They make the shirts. It’s likely more lucrative for Adidas and Nike to associate with as many popular football clubs as possible just to win a bigger piece of the replica shirt pie (that pie literally tastes awful). They’re just riding the back of the club’s popularity to sell more of their product.

So then are these high-profile skirmishes just an expression of corporate hubris, a clash of egos that has little to do with ads, brands or sales? Or does it matter in sports sponsorships?

Jason Belzer, professor of organization behaviour in Sports at Rutgers, asked this question to Andy England, MillerCoors’ chief marketing officer, for Forbes.

England basically concedes there is no substantial return on investment in sports sponsorship anymore, no chance at exclusivity (those Nike swooshes are going to keep popping up where they’re not welcome), and no purpose in simple “brand association.” So what is a corporation to do?

“Leveraging paid and owned media to drive earned media is going to continue to grow in importance,” says Andy England. “In order to effectively break through the clutter and amplify brand storytelling, marketers will rely on precision marketing – right message, right time, right location. Work will focus on understanding the consumer experience, navigating across multiple screens and building relevant connection points to fuel consumers passion points and fostering brand relationships. Partnerships have to enhance the consumer or fan experience,” he adds.

Uh, right. I think this means they just have to be smarter about how they push their brand within a sporting organization. Which, to be fair, companies like Adidas and Nike are doing already.

Take Adidas’ miCoach technology. The point, in part, is to offer cutting edge on-sight data-collection technology to football clubs large and small. But it’s also to signal to consumers that the company is at the cutting edge of sports technology. In the end, Adidas is just selling football boots, and despite all the lasers, football boots are always going to be football boots. The margins for improvement are small. This means the makers of football boots need to establish an aura of credibility as an innovator in sports science, even though you can only make a football boot so good before, you know, you’re just bullshitting.

In other words, simply plastering your effing logo every which wheres isn’t enough anymore. So we get it Nike, you exist. Nike I think gets this too. The point of sports sponsorships today is for marketers not just to put their names on a shirt, but to start telling me (yeah, me!) a story that convinces me that they understand my personal sporting experience in a way that will foster a better brand relationship. I think. Value alignment, huzzah!

As to whether this means increased sales…who knows. I think these guys need better analytics.