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How tobacco brands are returning to F1 by the back door – RaceFans

Tobacco advertising in Formula 1 was almost entirely eradicated in the mid-noughties, as legislative pressure forced cigarette brands off teams’ liveries.

But last year Ferrari revealed its new Mission Winnow brand in conjunction with long-time backer Philip Morris International. And McLaren is set to present a similar initiative with British American Tobacco when it launches its MCL34 tomorrow. It’s a development which demonstrates it’s not just the cars’ designers who are paying close attention to the letter of the law.

Here’s a left-field fact: tobacco sponsorship beat wings to the Formula 1 grid, with the first recorded instance of the former appearing during the 1968 South African Grand Prix – contrary to popular lore, not on a Lotus but on John Love’s privateer Brabham sponsored by the local Gunston brand – held on 1st January, whereas F1’s first rudimentary aero devices appeared during that year’s Monaco Grand Prix staged at end-May.

Once hooked on nicotine, F1 embarked on a series of spending bonanzas funded by a wide spectrum of tobacco brands – ranging from 555 through almost every letter of the alphabet – all willing to shell out ever-spiralling sums to punt their brands via F1’s burgeoning live and TV audiences. Budgets exploded, and a case could be made that nicotine, and not petrol, fuelled the sport.

Marlboro facilitated the take-over of a limping McLaren by Ron Dennis’s Project 4 outfit and paid Ferrari’s drivers’ wages before switching full-time to the Scuderia as the extent of Jean Todt’s ambitions became clear. Undaunted, McLaren snared West, and the former day-glo cars turned into Silver Arrows.

Williams put its Camel stipend to winning use by building the FW14B, arguably the most technically advanced F1 car ever. Mild Seven funded Michael Schumacher to his two Benetton world titles. The last F1 world champion to be visibly tobacco-linked was Fernando Alonso in 2006.

However, the ultimate expression of F1 as a tobacco marketing platform was realised at end-1998, when British American Tobacco announced – in anticipation of global bans on tobacco sponsorship – that it would fund a turn-key operation in Brackley, to be known as British American Racing (BAR), with one car entered under 555 colours, the other in Lucky Strike livery.

Tobacco sponsorship took off in the seventies

F1’s arcane regulations forced the team to eventually run identical left/right branding separated by a zipper, but, whatever, the team failed to bag a single point during its debut year…but once the baccy ban bit the team was sold as per plan: first to Honda, then Brawn, followed by Mercedes-Benz.

However, before that stage was reached motorsport generally and F1 in particular benefited massively by snubbing its carbon fibre-tipped nose at the world’s politically-correct brigades to become virtually the only sporting genre willing to accept tobacco money.

Indeed, the FIA, a that stage presided over by Max Mosley, took up metaphorical arms against the European Union on behalf of motor sport, and by extension F1 and its teams, as the governing body pushed for a stay on pending EU tobacco bans.

With the benefit of hindsight in a (relatively) smoke-free world an excerpt from a letter Mosley at the time addressed to David Byrne, the EU’s then-Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection in a salvo that originally started after the cancellation of the Belgian Grand Prix over a ban on the event’s title sponsorship by Marlboro, is particularly illuminating.

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“The FIA would rather devote its scarce resources to promoting road safety and maintaining our legitimate role as sporting regulator [than fighting team sponsors over earlier anti-tobacco legislation tabled by Byrne],” it reads.

Indeed, so nicotine dependent did F1 become that some teams and/or promoters knowingly transgressed prevailing laws in certain territories in the knowledge that the paltry fines levied – and usually paid in advance, ’twas said at the time – were mere pittances in comparison with the contributions of their benefactors.

Only Ferrari still carried tobacco logos by 2007

Others invented increasingly creative activities to push their brands: Witness BAR’s 400 km/h (well 397) land speed record runs. F1 car launches became lavish spectacles aimed at global TV audiences rather than at hacks and snappers earning a crust for the odd magazine – websites such as this were few and far between back then – scribbling a few words or publishing a pic or two of a team’s latest creation.

Although Byrne accelerated the EU’s effective ban date by 18 months to July 2005, various challenges to its jurisdiction sowed confusion, forcing the FIA to stick to its own end-2006 deadline. Thus for 18 months F1 operated in legal limbo, but thereafter F1 fell in line EU legislation – vague as it was in parts – which made it an offence to broadcast pictures of logos or trademarks regardless of where these are generated.

Thus the loophole of racing with “dark liveries” in, say, Asia in order to broadcast logos to audiences in countries with more stringent regulations plugged via threats of hefty legal action against team executives, tobacco barons and broadcasters.

Teams mainly toed the legal line, although until mid-2008 Ferrari pushed legislation to the limit, running, for example, Marlboro logos in certain countries outside Europe, yet that moving footage was broadcast into the EU. However, thereafter a number of white bar codes bearing uncanny likenesses to the brand’s pyramid trademarks appeared until 2010, when flying “Scuderia Ferrari” logos erased all traces of Marlboro.

However, Marlboro’s owner Philip Morris International, still funded the team – as it does to this day – to the tune of $100m/annum, in return gaining access to Ferrari for promotions and hospitality aimed at the tobacco trade and garage forecourt shops. Has the partnership delivered value for money? Well, hard-nosed board members are unlikely to shell out an amount that has since totalled a billion bucks without good reasons.

At the time I asked a Shell executive about partnering a team linked to tobacco. He quipped that their forecourts probably earned more money from cigarettes than petrol. Oh, and in a flash of reverse psychology, in certain countries where laws permitted printing on fag packs, Marlboro sneakily took to depicting likenesses of Ferrari F1 cars. After all, pictures of plain red racing cars were not regulated…

Ferrari’s drivers unveiled Mission Winnow at Suzuka last year

That was the status quo until last year’s Japanese Grand Prix, when and where PMI announced its Mission Winnow initiative, a corporate exercise aimed at “ensuring that one day all smokers quit cigarettes and switch to better alternatives”. Cynics, of course created two distinct words out of Win-Now, with Ferrari and Kimi Räikkönen obliging a race later in the USA. Still the cars were entered all year by Scuderia Ferrari.

That changed last week with the publication of the FIA’s revised entry list, which reflects Scuderia Ferrari Mission Winnow as team name. Almost immediately the Department of Health in the State of Victoria, host state to the Australian Grand Prix, began investigations into whether Mission Winnow is used to promote a tobacco product.

PMI says not. It has now been joined in similar denials by newly announced McLaren primary sponsor BAT, who on Monday announced it will have an “on-car and off-car presence throughout the season, at all times in line with applicable regulation and legislation”. RaceFans understands the car will highlight BAT’s “new-to-world and thought-leading “A Better Tomorrow” platform”.

Both companies do produce smoke-free – in some instances, electronic – products, but, saliently, these are not to be marketed on F1 cars; simply the concept of switching to healthier consumption, and thus lifestyles. The key word is, of course, “healthier” and not “healthy”, but, either way, how can offering a healthier way of life to what has legally gone before for millions be in any way illegal?

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Of course, some will argue that marketing of any form of nicotine substance is immoral. The counter-argument claims that non-smokers are unlikely to start puffing e-cigarettes – whether marketed via corporate slogans on race cars or not – and nicotine consumption is not glamorised as it was back in the days of full-on cigarette advertising.

British American Tobacco’s logo will appear on the new McLaren

The next question is: how long before PMI or BAT (or the other tobacco conglomerates that will surely follow this duo into F1) start pushing smoke-free products? The likely answer is never, certainly not while current EU bans such products, for the FIA’s 2006 anti-tobacco resolution was to follow to the letter the EU’s laws, plus adhere to World Health Organisation guidelines.

The legislation, promulgated in 2003 with effect 31 July 2005, recognises that there are “varying Member State laws, regulations and administrative provisions”, but that the full regulations pertaining to tobacco control falls within the scope of directives where cross-border effects exist – such as broadcast/media activities. Saliently the following definitions apply:

a) “tobacco products” means all products intended to be smoked, sniffed, sucked or chewed in as much as they are made, even partly, of tobacco;
b) “advertising” means any form of commercial communications with the aim or direct or indirect effect of promoting a tobacco product;
c) “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.

Although the legislation applies to all forms of tobacco products – including, by definition, vaping, e-cigarettes or other related products – not a word is mentioned about the outlawing of mission statements of tobacco companies or their corporate jargon. Ensuring compliance with this kind of legislation is exactly what PMI and BAT hires lawyers for. It seems they have found the legal loophole they sought.

While Brexit may mean that EU laws no longer prevail within the United Kingdom once the transition period is up, the government is unlikely to turn its attention to any softening of anti-tobacco legislation any time soon, so it’s a fair bet to say the same provisions will apply to the cross-border nature of F1, particularly for the British teams that constitute 70 per cent of the grid.

Australia does not, though, fall under EU jurisdiction, and may well have a different take on the matter. The question of Mission Winnow was put to Phil Branagan, a Melbournian motorsport editor with knowledge of the local situation. His response:

“I do not really understand. [Mission Winnow] is not a brand; you can’t walk into a shop [here] and buy anything by that name, so why would it be banned in Australia?

“It will be interesting to see what happens from here. Not sure what they can do with the existing legislation; does it potentially blank out a brand no one has ever heard of, and [one] which has a somewhat tenuous link to tobacco?”

Another question that arises is: How do teams feel about an issue that will surely generate controversy, regardless of its legalities? Given that most teams at some stage availed themselves of controversial products – whether alcohol or the energy drinks that were at one stage banned in France – they hardly have a case, although, to paraphrase an old saying: “Any controversy is better for F1 than none at all…”

Heineken’s sponsorship incorporate an anti-drink driving element

However, the topic of alcohol provides a perfect comparison: Heineken, and the beer brand’s social awareness slogan on all its F1 advertising and sponsorship: “If you drink, never drive”, accompanied by a red ‘No beer bottle’ device.

Alcohol is not (yet?) subject to the same stringent laws as are tobacco products, so the marketing of such products is legal in most countries. Where forbidden, it is mainly for religious rather than health reasons. Johnnie Walker trackside and on-car sponsorship deals or Williams’s now defunct Martini livery are all legal within F1’s European host countries, apart from France.

That said, in terms of the applicable EU directive there are restrictions, relevant clauses of which state:

a) it may not be aimed specifically at minors or, in particular, depict minors consuming these beverages;
b) it shall not link the consumption of alcohol to enhanced physical performance or to driving

Hence Heineken’s slogan, which niftily markets an alcohol product while complying fully with EU law.

Although any number of moral arguments can be forwarded against the latest initiatives from PMI and BAT the fact is that, when squeezed, brands reinvent themselves in order to survive. Look no further than the social media campaigns pushed out by the same brands as they (legally) circumvent any restrictions. To tobacco brands, F1 is just another platform – albeit one passionately followed by hundreds of millions of fans.

And, who knows, what with pending changes to F1’s future aerodynamic regulations, such corporate sloganeering by tobacco houses may well outlive F1’s wings…

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