Was Tobacco Ever Good For Us?
From iconic cars to treasured racing memories, was motor racing better in the good old days?
At one point in motorsport history, tobacco was as much a part of the sport as oil and petrol. Teams won and lost on budgets underwritten heavily by Phillip Morris, John Player, and others. The sport has evidently long since changed in many ways. Caps have been put on ever-increasing budgets and livery sponsors today are more likely to come from petrochemical and drinks manufacturers.
Formula one in particular is an almost entirely new sport from what it was three decades ago. The effects and changes which have taken place since both cars and teams were weaned from tobacco are staggering.
F1 Legends Of The Past
Cars and liveries from bygone eras were, on the whole, far nicer to look at than the current crop of vehicles. Not in a 'things were always better and never bad in the olden days' kind of way. Cars of previous generations were more attractive in a 'we've got serious money to burn and obsess over our public image' kind of way.
When your product is a chemically enhanced stick of leaves with side effects of death—you have to spend big on high-quality advertising. Spending was something tobacco companies done well. In 2001, at the height of the Ferrari era, Phillip Morris was spending in excess of $88 million per year to place their Marlboro brand on the bright red cars.
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Combined with money spent in major publications, TV slots, and billboarding; cigarette brands more than proved they were willing to shell out on keeping their brands in the public eye.
Even today, tobacco sponsorship is still a force in Formula One. Although teams are no longer allowed to promote or overtly advertise tobacco products, sponsor money continues to flow from tobacco firms to front-running teams.
Drawing the ire of the World Health Organization, tobacco sponsorship continues to play a minor role in F1. Phillip Morris' "Mission Winnow" and British American Tobacco's "A Better Tomorrow Campaign" continues to sit front and centre of the Ferrari And McLaren liveries. Though still present in markets that permit it, both companies spend a fraction of what they once did to advertise on the side of the cars.
Building A Race Team
At one time, tobacco sponsorship was the major income stream for teams up and down the field. It was most often and largely tobacco money that drove car development, funded testing, and kept the lights on in the factory. Tobacco sponsorship funded and promoted racing from its early days as an obscure fringe sport into a mainstream global event. It's hard to argue that without that sponsorship we'd have the same motorsport pedigree we have today.
There are no doubts that the same sponsorship which built motorsport up is responsible for keeping cigarettes in more hands and for far longer. Studies have shown that advertising results in more people taking up smoking than would otherwise do so. In short, advertising works. They weren't spending all that money for nothing.
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The immediate effects of the ban benefited tobacco companies themselves more than anyone else. A large amount of the money spent was done so to promote their brand over the competition. Increasing budgets and continued spending had created an advertising arms race for public attention. Immediately following the ban, no single company could out promote anyone else
It's only in the years and decades that followed has dwindling advertising, in combination with tightening legislation, impacted sales dramatically.
Budgeting For Beginners
The void left when tobacco exited motorsport was never completely filled. Most teams were forced to find a greater number of smaller sponsors to meet the ever-increasing financial demands of racing. The changes made took with it many of the best looking and most iconic liveries we'd have for some time. Even the frontrunning teams were left eking out space on the bodywork to fit on every logo and brand they could bring on board.
Complete cohesive designs and colour schemes have given way to patchworks of popular brands and products.
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Alcohol marketing has stepped in over the years to fill a large percentage of the gap. Beer and spirit manufacturers have poured vast sums into motorsport branding. While perhaps even less well-suited to motorsport than tobacco, it's a relationship F1 seems happy to adopt.
Our deadliest vices seem to make the best partners to motor racing. Given recent scandals and revelations, it's surprising social media giants aren't sponsoring or purchasing race teams of their own for the upcoming season.
Tobacco, without a doubt, propelled Formula One in a way that very few sponsors were even capable of at the time. Their removal, though probably the right thing to do, dented race teams and the sport in a big way. Even today, most teams are desperately on the lookout for ways to keep money and sponsors coming in to propel their car through the field.
With a deluge of new race series emerging over the last few years, finding the right partnerships has never been as tough. Major brands today have any number of niche opportunities to reflect their mission statement and public image.
Motorsport series such as the futuristic and forward-looking Formula E and progressive looking W-series offer brands a way to reflect their values in a more direct and public way.
Constantly improving uptake of direct-to-consumer streaming is connecting fans with races with little regard for geographic barriers or strict TV licensing models. While most series leave a lot still to be desired; so much motor racing has never been so accessible at such a low cost.
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In many areas, Formula One still lags far behind. Offering no direct streaming service and few TV options for a handful of markets, viewing figures for the 'pinnacle of motorsport' are falling sharply in areas where they have been traditionally very strong. Legacy agreements with several years still on the clock are leaving the series at a distinct disadvantage.
Tobacco built motorsport almost from the ground up. Much like cigarettes themselves it's a legacy that is best left, though fondly remembered, in a bygone era. More needs to be done to move on and build on its achievements. The sport is at risk of looking dated and obscure if it can't modernise to meet its audience.
Tobacco is all but gone from motorsport and vice-advertising is a common target of legislation globally. It seems unlikely alcohol focused brands will last the decade tied to motorsport. The audience and pedigree built from previous eras gives owners a chance deliver content as if it's the 21st century and provide fans with the racing they still crave in the modern age of advertising.