Subliminal Advertising and the Ferrari Barcode
May 4, 2010
Over the last forty years one of the biggest sponsors of F1 has been tobacco giant Philip Morris with their Marlboro brand. The red and white colouring and chevron design of the Marlboro packaging have adorned F1 cars since 1972, teams such as BRM, Iso, Williams, McLaren and Ferrari have all benefitted from Marlboro sponsorship. Marlboro also sponsored many individual drivers, such as Mika Hakkinen, through their Marlboro World Championship Team (MWCT) programme. They are as much a part of the imagery of modern F1 as Shell’s pecten and even the prancing horse of Ferrari.
With the banning of tobacco advertising on television we have seen the demise of the tobacco industry as a mainstay of F1 sponsorship. The first non-automotive sponsorship of an F1 team was Imperial Tobacco who provided funding for Lotus in 1968, in exchange for which the normal British racing green and yellow livery of Lotus was replaced with the red and white of Imperial’s Gold Leaf brand. Lotus remained at the forefront of innovation in commercial sponsorship in 1972 when they made the step of naming their car the ‘John Player Special’ removing all reference to Lotus themselves. Tobacco became the dominant source of funding for most of the teams through the 70s and 80s promoting brands such as Mild Seven (Benetton and then Renault), Benson and Hedges (Jordan), West (McLaren) and Lucky Strike (BAR – British American Racing who were wholly owned by British American Tobacco). However global legislation, particularly driven by the World Health Organisation (WHO), has led to increasing restrictions on advertising tobacco products and all but Philip Morris have now withdrawn from the sport. In 2008 it was estimated that only 7% of sponsorship revenue came from the tobacco industry, in contrast 46% came from the car manufacturers and 13% from the beverage sector (which includes alcoholic beverages).
As part of the relationship with Ferrari, for which they pay an estimated $100 million per annum, Philip Morris control the advertising space on the car and have, for some years, replaced the Marlboro branding with a bar code image. It is this image which is now causing some controversy with Professor John Britton, a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Director of its Centre for Tobacco Control Studies writing to the Department of Health and the BBC asking them to ask whether coverage of the Ferrari car is in compliance with the current law on tobacco advertising. The Times (who first published Professor Britton’s comments) also reported that a spokesman for the European Public Health Commissioner had stated that the barcode image ‘constituted potential subliminal marketing’. Subliminal images are an interesting, if highly controversial topic. Early reference to them was made in Vance Packard’s seminal book on consumerism and critique of marketing practices – ‘The Hidden Persuaders’. The concept of subliminal communication is that subtle imagery is being processed by the brain without the individual consciously perceiving it, so, in effect, we are influenced by the image or words without being aware of it and its purpose. This could theoretically be achieved through inserting single frames in a reel of film (this was the basis for a murder plot in an episode of Columbo as I recall!), by placing subtle images in a photo, or by inserting words in recorded sound. The concept is a rather frightening and persuasive one, and has led to many myths and media speculation, but one in which there is no substantial evidence to support the hypothesis that subliminal communication really does work. However whether or not it does work is perhaps not really the issue as it relates to Philip Morris and Ferrari, the question is perhaps more whether there is an intention to use the imagery on the Ferrari to promote the Marlboro product. So it looks like this story has quite a bit further to run, subliminally or otherwise.