We all remember the beautiful cars of the 70s, 80s and 90s eras of F1 that caught the eyes of many inside as well as outside of the sport. It was also those times that Formula One was overflown with tobacco sponsorships. The most memorable ones were definitely the John Player Special and Lotus with its black and golden colour scheme; McLaren and Marlboro, especially the 1988 MP4/4 that won the championship while driven by legendary Ayrton Senna; Williams and Camel on the Williams FW15C that won the title with Alain Prost to name just a few. Even in the more recent times we had the Lucky Strike on BAR-Honda cars. But those days are long gone, with the ban of advertising from the season of 2007 onwards. But are those days really that distant now?
Some time ago, a debate over on twitter sparked some of my interests. In a summary, someone said they wished the tobacco sponsorships were back in F1. Although we all know this won’t be the case, I decided not only to look into the regulations that prohibit such sponsorships to resurge into the sport, but also investigate if that’s really the case that tobacco companies are as far from F1 as they can (spoiler alert: thats not the case). Let’s take a deep dive, shall we?
As pointed out in research conducted by Quester and Farelly (1998) «sponsorship» as a marketing tool emerged actually as a way for liquor and tobacco companies to overcome the regulations that excluded them from conventional broadcast media and forced out of traditional advertising. In the beginning stages of the existence of Formula One championship, commercial sponsorships were banned from the sport. Back then the cars raced only with their national colours on them: British teams with what is called “British racing green”, Ferrari with the Italian red and so forth, and only had the manufacturers logo, usually on the front. The first logos that started to appear were the ones of the official tyre and oil suppliers on the drivers’ overalls. The governing body, FIA, was forced to change their stance on sponsorships during the 1968 season, as the BP and Shell, who were the fuel providers withdrew from the sport and Firestone, the tyre supplier, decided to charge for their products. With the introduction of commercial sponsorship in Formula One immediately came the tobacco industry: the first tobacco company in F1 came in 1968 when Lotus introduced their Gold Leaf sponsorship.
Why was motorsports such a popular playing ground for tobacco sponsorships? It has to do with what is usually defined as «image transfer» within the research field on sponsorship. In very basic words Grohs and Reisinger (2005) explain that activities such as for example sport events have very specific characteristics, images and associations linked with them. What they describe as image transfer is the transferring of this associations from the event to the company or brand sponsoring this activity. The aim of such transfer is to evoke positive feelings and attitudes towards the sponsor, by linking it with the event. In this case, motorsports are particularly appealing because it’s frequently associated (or at least used to be in the past) with adventure, glamour and risk. Additionally, as in the case with any other sports, motorsports are a great ground for sponsorships in general, due not only to the mass reach of the sport but especially due to the emotional attachment they generate in their fans (Koronios et al, 2016).
For tobacco companies that mean not only exposure to global audiences (with the increase of the events being televised in late 70s-80s) but also showcasing their product to someone who could have bought their product because it was related to a team/driver they supported. This can be linked with the concept of «goodwill» which is frequently used in the sponsorship literature. In easy terms, goodwill is driven by the appreciation of individuals who recognize the beneﬁts of sponsorship to activities with which they are involved (Meenaghan, 2001). Because the consumer understands the relationship between the sponsor and sponsored entity, he or she is much more prone to showcase positive tendencies towards the sponsor. Additionally, sponsorship in general is seen as much less invasive than regular advertising, which adds towards those positive tendencies of consumers exposed to such activities.
It all seemed like a dream scenario for tobacco firms and Formula One, where the teams would flourish with the money provided by the concerns, and the tobacco companies were able to present their products to many. But soon enough this relationship was under a threat.
In the beginning of 1985, the European Community started to develop a first potential legislation to fight the tobacco use in Europe. By 1989 they proposed a directive that would end tobacco advertising and sponsorship in Europe. Tobacco industry lobbied the directive so effectively it did not only delay the adoption of it, but it furthermore led to the annulment of it in 2000. Regardless, many countries itself started to create laws that would ban the sponsoring of events and sports by tobacco companies. But since this industry was pouring a lot of money into the sport, there have been some attempts to postpone such bans having an effect in F1.
In January 1997, Bernie Ecclestone, the back-then chief of Formula One made a donation of £1million to the UK Labour Party. The donation was only made public in November of that year, after it was announced by the British Government that F1 will be exempted from a ban on tobacco advertising (which was also a main policy of the Labour party’s election programme at that time). The scandal that came out of it meant the government had to drop this exemption.
This has lead to the decision that happened in 2001, that with the end of the season of 2006 there will be no longer any tobacco visible on the cars in F1. But, as we will see in a couple of paragraphs, this does not necessarily mean that sponsorship has been fully banned from the sport.
So what exactly is currently stopping tobacco companies from a proper resurgence into the world of motorsports? It can be mainly attributed to the specific regulations issued by European Union. By the time those regulations were made F1, FIA and others had to obey them under the EU laws and they still have to to this day if they want like to compete in Europe.
There are three main directives and recommendations restricting tobacco advertising and sponsorship in the EU. These are: The Tobacco Advertising Directive (2003/33/EC); Audio-visual Media Services Directive (2010/13/EU); and the Council Recommendation (2003/54/EC) on the prevention of smoking and on initiatives to improve tobacco control. The main one being obviously the 2003 directive on Tobacco Advertising. This directive reads as follows:
«Directive 2003/33/EC» of the European Parliament and of the Council of 26 May 2003 on the approximation of the laws, regulations and administrative provisions of the Member States relating to the advertising and sponsorship of tobacco products.
Sponsorship of events
- Sponsorship of events or activities involving or taking place in several Member States or otherwise having cross-border effects shall be prohibited.
- Any free distribution of tobacco products in the context of the sponsorship of the events referred to in paragraph 1 having the purpose or the direct or indirect effect of promoting such products shall be prohibited.
As we can see, theoretically, there is no place for tobacco companies in F1 due to the fact that the 2003 directive states that activities which take place in several of the EU countries are prohibited from advertising and sponsorships related to nicotine products. Since 9 out of 21 races in the 2019 season took part in Europe, we can easily see where this is heading to. It is important to realise that the directive itself can be seen as a little vague. Scholars that investigated the topic of tobacco advertising attribute it to the conflict between health and industrial interests. For example, the directive states in the definitions part that «"sponsorship" means any form of public or private contribution to any event, activity or individual with the aim or direct or indirect effect of promoting a tobacco product». But there is no indication about any types of contribution from the tobacco companies that arguably do not “promote tobacco products”, yet promote the companies themselves or any other branding attempts made by them. Nevertheless, a directive has made, which provides some legal basis for companies to be held accountable (to a certain degree, which we will discuss very soon). The regulations regarding tobacco products in general are constantly evolving, with the recent ban of menthol nicotine products within the borders of EU. But, as admitted by WHO, the restrictions related to indirect advertising of tobacco should be strengthened in most regions of Europe. It is also important to note down that although there are certain directives created by the EU, it is in the end within the individual governments to make sure such legislations that prohibit promotion of tobacco products are in place.
Additionally, there is also the question of ethics in advertising. According to the WHO website, latest research related to tobacco shows that smoking-related mortality is estimated to be around 7.2 million lives annually, killing more people than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. On one hand, there many ethical issues with advertising of harmful products. On the other hand many believe that if a product is legal to sell, it is legal to advertise. But it is not as clear cut as it can see. Obviously tobacco products are legal to sell, but only if the buyer is of legal-adult age (in most places 18 years old). That could imply that the advertising should be fine, as long as not directed towards anyone below 18 years of age. But there is no way in which such thing could be even remotely possible. And of course, I believe I do not need to stress the health related issues coming with smoking, which deems the product to be, at least in my own personal opinion, in no way advertisable (and it comes from a smoker herself).
Looking at all the legislations and thinking about the ethics of advertising, we could think tobacco companies are long gone from Formula One. But are they?
Well, actually not at all. Despite the ban of tobacco advertising in F1 that took place from the season of 2007 onwards, some teams are still powered with (maybe arguably smaller amounts, yet still) money from tobacco companies. How are the companies able to go around the ban? Let’s look at two cases: Ferrari and McLaren.
Until mid-2008, Ferrari cars still had the Marlboro advertising on them in races outside of Europe. Afterwards, until 2010, the cars had stickers with white bar codes that very closely resembled the ones included on Marlboro packs. In the recent years, the tobacco and cigarette manufacturer that owns Marlboro, Philip Morris changed their tactics to still be able to somehow advertise themselves on the F1 cars. In 2018 they came up with the “Mission Winnow” sponsorship. The initiative made by PMI was said to aim at “ensuring that one day all smokers quit cigarettes and switch to better alternatives”. A controversy started when the state of Victoria, Australia began an investigation of Mission Winnow, which unsurprisingly led to the name disappearing from the Ferrari cars and coming back for the race in Bahrain. Philip Morris International which is a successor of Rothmans International (another very known brand within F1) continues to sponsor Ferrari with an amount estimated at around $160m per year (2015). They do so to in return gain access to Ferrari for promotions and hospitality. Mission Winnow has been proven (also academically) to be a pretty obvious way of advertising by PMI company. But the company is able to avoid repercussions, based on the fact that it is not directly said that Mission Winnow initiative is indeed sponsored by PMI, which is an information only obtainable with some internet digging. By bringing the “switch to better alternatives” as stated by the company, they’re also bringing up the the new line of their products: IQOS/HEETS (which are, based on personal observation, becoming increasingly popular in Western Europe). Some also link this attempt with the concept of «Corporate Social Responsibility». What CSR basically is is an attempt of a company to be "socially accountable” - so to say conscious of the impact they’re having on the market, individuals, health and more, so they try to engage in charitable/ethically oriented practices.
Another team still sponsored by big tobacco company is McLaren. In February 2019, the company announced its “multi-year” partnership with BAT (British American Tobacco). BAT is said to become a principal partner of McLaren from 2020 with its “A Better Tomorrow” , and the initiative is (with the same principle as PMI) aiming at “reducing the health impact of its business through offering a greater choice of enjoyable and less risky products to consumers.” In summary, it is exactly the same thing as done by Philip Morris: a tobacco company trying to look for “healthier alternatives” to the products they’re offering (so they can once again monetise on them). So far the BAT - McLaren partnership did not yet gain much attention around it, but it might be only because its set to really come to life with the season of 2020 (which will hopefully start soon) with the title of principal partner and on-car branding, despite the deal starting in 2019. Once again this initiative can be linked with promotion of the new products sold by BAT, for example GLO which is a direct competition to the IQOS developed by Philip Morris.
To conclude and answer the question: can the tobacco sponsorships come back to F1?
Well, they didn’t really go anywhere did they? Although the branding as we know from the 1970s-2006 times is legally prohibited, the big tobacco companies still use motorsports as their advertising playground, although not to such a big degree as we’ve seen before. Unsurprisingly, despite those sponsorships being an obvious plug for tobacco advertising, the companies are unfazed and basically won’t face any repercussions. How? Because both PMI’s Mission Winnow and BAT’s A Better Tomorrow branding is permitted since it “does not promote smoking or its products.” As we can see, both of those campaigns have been developed to promote “better/less risky alternatives to cigarettes”. But truly in this case we have two products fighting for consumers attention: IQOS by PMI and GLO by BAT, which both are classified as “tobacco heating products”. With the current portrayal of Formula One as so technologically developed and tech oriented, and additionally the sport attracting increasingly younger audience such marketing battles can be seen as dangerous. It is quite hard to regulate sponsorship like this, because although it is money poured from a big tobacco concern, they’re hiding behind socially responsible claims and they do not directly advertise products related to tobacco, although it is important to remember and directly admit that those products still contain nicotine and other harmful chemical substances in them. We can possibly see introduction of such products not only as an attempt of CSR, but also as trying to stay “on trend” and attract a considerably younger audience towards their products (because “e-cigarettes” and “tobacco heating products” and similar products can be seen by youngsters as «cool» ).
Perhaps we should revisit the legislations surrounding this entire debate - maybe we should not ban advertising and sponsorship of tobacco products per say, but products that contain nicotine and other chemical substances - because they’re just as harmful as cigarettes.
Grohs, R., & Reisinger, H. (2005). Image transfer in sports sponsorships: An assessment of moderating effects. International Journal of Sports Marketing & Sponsorship, 7(1).
Koronios, K., Psiloutsikou, M., Kriemadis, A., Zervoulakos, P., & Leivaditi, E. (2016). Sport sponsorship: The impact of sponsor image on purchase intention of fans. Journal of Promotion Management, 22(2), 238-250.
Meenaghan, T. (2001). Understanding sponsorship effects. Psychology & Marketing, 18(2), 95-122.
Quester, P., & Farrelly, F. (1998). Brand association and memory decay effects of sponsorship. Journal of Product & Brand Management.