It was a few months ago that I blogged about Marlboro’s ‘subliminal’ advertising on the back of Ferrari’s 2010 Formula 1 car. The story became news about 2 months later, when doctors demanded an inquiry into the matter and it caught the media’s attention.
As a result of the media attack on the ‘barcode’ design on the back of Ferrari’s car, after denying that the design had anything to do with Marlboro, Ferrari caved in, first replacing the barcode with an empty white box, and then entirely getting rid of any such markings on the car.
Marlboro remains in Ferrari’s name (Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro), and as a barcode on uniforms and helmets. In this case the company no doubt predicted correctly that, having removed the mark from the car, the media would be silenced – any complaints about the barcode remaining elsewhere easily dismissed as pedantic mumbling about old news.
This whole story tells the tale of one of the last remaining tobacco advertising tales in F1. One that started years ago, with only a few nations censoring the ads, teams replacing brand names with allusions, barcodes, and tongue in cheek slogans, like Benson & Hedges’ “Be on Edge”. This was a phrase I noted on some B&H packs just a few weeks ago, showing that link between F1 and tobacco still persists, long after its (theoretical) abolition.
Now with tobacco largely absent from F1, other areas of controversy are beginning to become visible. The finale of the 2010 F1 season was last Sunday, and crowned surprise victor Sebastian Vettel. Vettel is unique in this season as he only led the Drivers championship for one race, that was on Sunday; and he was also the only F1 driver to be stopped from getting into Silverstone by my friend Stephen, who refused him entry into the British Grand Prix because he didn’t have a pass.
But back to last Sunday’s Grand Prix, held in Abu Dhabi. This city is in the UAE, an arabic country, with understandably Arabic laws. I first noticed it on the Uniform of McLaren’s Jenson Button, below BOSS and other sponsors. It was ‘DIAGEO’. This name may not be familiar to you, I doubt it’s familiar to a lot of people. It’s the company that owns Smirnoff, Strongbow, Guinness, and McLaren regular sponsor ‘Johnny Walker’ whisky.
The company had replaced all the mentions of its Whisky brand, on the competitors uniforms and helmets, to say DIAGEO. Similarly on the Force India cars, the usual ‘Kingfisher’ sponsor was different. Instead of plugging Kingfisher beer, instead the cars said ‘Fly Kingfisher’. Going from alcoholic beverage to little known airline in little more than 3 letters. Fly Kingfisher does exist, I have no idea where it flies, but it’s owned by the same person who owns the beer. One hopes they aren’t trashed while flying the aeroplanes.
As Arabic countries become more and more important in F1, and business, and the mainstream world – we’re only going to see more controversy where Alcohol is involved… and I can’t help wondering if it offers a foretaste of what lies ahead for alcohol advertising in the West, given the experience with tobacco.