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Old Gold & Black

'Covers the campus like the magnolias'
"Covers the campus like the magnolias"

Old Gold & Black

"Covers the campus like the magnolias"

Old Gold & Black

Lights out and away we smoke!

F1’s long-standing addiction to tobacco sponsorship rises from the ashes with “alibi marketing”
McLaren driver Lando Norris speeds past at the 2021 Turkish Grand Prix. Norris dons British American Tobacco’s “A Better Tomorrow” campaign on his sidepod. (Courtesy of Automotive Rhythms/flickr is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“I’m never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, never gonna run around and desert you.” 

While Rick Astley is referring to his love for his partner in the 1987 hit, “Never Gonna Give You Up,” the same sentiment, unfortunately, applies to the relationship between Formula One (F1) and tobacco sponsorships. As new-age smokeless tobacco and vaping brands find ways through the regulations designed to stop tobacco sponsorship, it seems as if F1’s governing body, the Federation Internationale de Automobile (FIA), hasn’t done enough to stop its crown jewel from being tainted by tobacco advertising. 

Before we look at modern-day tobacco sponsorships, a look back into the past shows how tobacco companies first started this toxic relationship. The first time a cigarette sponsorship was plastered on a car was back in 1968, when John Player Special cigarettes sponsored the Lotus F1 Team for £85,000 a year (around $1,560,000 in today’s dollars). Over the next three decades, tobacco sponsorship would become synonymous with F1 as brands from all over, including Winston-Salem’s own Reynolds American brands like Camel and Barclay’s, raced to sponsor teams. 

Early in the 21st century, the FIA became concerned that F1 was promoting the dangerous habit of smoking, and in 2001, they announced the sport would completely phase out cigarette sponsorship by 2006. 

Or, at least they planned to. 

Ultimately, the FIA overturned its ban in 2003 and issued a “recommendation” against tobacco sponsorship. This recommendation simply made affected companies look for alternate ways to get their sponsorship out there, such as by changing their logos slightly, so that at high speeds they looked similar but weren’t violating the recommendation. This became known as “alibi marketing,” most prominently implemented by Philip Morris International (parent company of Marlboro), which has continued sponsoring Ferrari to this day. 

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“Alibi marketing” was one way around the FIA’s loose condemnation, but British American Tobacco (and by proxy Reynolds America) discovered another way around it. The recommendation specified tobacco sponsorship, leaving plenty of room for non-tobacco, nicotine products — like vapes and nicotine pouches — to appear on car liveries. In fact, the Dutch government filed a complaint against one team, McLaren F1, for advertising VELO nicotine pouches, which technically is allowed under the FIA’s regulations. 

The broader impact of continuing to have nicotine product sponsorship on racing liveries is that, in F1 and extreme sports like it, they appeal to mass audiences that tend to be very young. Nielsen data shows that over 46% of F1’s interest pool of around 445 million viewers fall between the ages of 16-34. 

Constantly exposing this age group to advertisements for nicotine products carries immense harm, as it increases the odds of teenagers in particular taking up smoking. A report from the Truth Initiative notes that teens with high exposure to nicotine advertisements through TV were three times more likely to start vaping compared to peers who had no exposure. Articles from the Cancer Causes & Control Journal also note that even mere exposure to brand names and slogans can cause teenagers to have more favorable views of nicotine products, as the sport makes their use seem “cool.” 

This impact only multiplies as F1 has become increasingly popular as total attendance was up by 36%, largely due to the success of Netflix’s “F1: Drive to Survive.” In an interview with Autosport, F1’s CEO Stefano Domincali noted that the sport’s audience has become steadily younger, increasing with each season bringing in more fans to F1’s overall fanbase. With every passing year, the sport’s growing popularity only contributes more attention to nicotine sponsors who refuse to let go of their grip on the highly lucrative sport.

While Astley may never let go of his love, F1 seems certain that it won’t give up on its long-standing relationship with tobacco sponsors. The FIA’s “recommendation” doesn’t actually solve the root of the issue, leaving F1 hopelessly tied to something that is ultimately harmful to its viewers and reputation.  

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