Motorsport Sponsorship

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Sports sponsorship is a longstanding and effective form of indirect advertising for the tobacco industry, particularly in terms of increasing the uptake of smoking among young people.12 Motorsports are particularly appealing because of their association with adventure, excitement, glamour and risk.345


In the 1970s and 1980s tobacco advertising in motorsports involved widespread direct branding, with cigarette logos on cars, motorbikes, team uniforms and trackside advertising, largely to gain brand exposure via TV coverage.267

When restrictions on this type of advertising were introduced in some countries in the 1990s and early 2000s, tobacco companies began to use more creative methods to get around the rules,3 such as British American Tobacco’s (BAT) ‘dark market’ logos (see below).2

After the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), banned “all tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship” in 2005,8 and with the increasingly global nature of TV coverage and consequent bans on cross-border advertising, companies were forced to remove all cigarette branding. However, sponsorship of motorsports continued, maintaining opportunities for indirect advertising and cross-promotion throughout the 2000s.23 The reported cumulative total TV audience (the number of those watching over the year) for Formula 1 (F1) alone was 1.9 billion in 2019.9 Brazil, Germany, Italy, the UK and the Netherlands had audiences larger than 100 million, with big increases in Poland, the Middle East and North Africa from the previous year.9 Estimates vary, but between 350 and 500 million individual fans watch F1 races globally.910 While the majority watch on TV, the numbers of people watching on other devices, and through streaming services, is growing.10

From 2018, some tobacco companies adopted a new approach to motorsports’ sponsorship, with Philip Morris International (PMI) and BAT using corporate mission statements and associated branding to link their ‘potentially reduced risk’ products to Formula One (F1) and Grand Prix motorcycle (MotoGP) racing teams. Public relations statements from the tobacco companies focus on corporate social responsibility (CSR), and technological collaboration and innovation, rather than product brands.

In March 2019, the WHO issued a statement urging governments to enforce existing bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, particularly in motorsports.1112

Formula One

In early 2019 there were several high profile launches of F1 cars branded with tobacco company slogans, reflecting new, and renewed, sponsorship deals. International TV coverage of F1 events, and criticism from public health advocates, shone a light on the industry’s new approach. This led to investigations by Australian and European Union (EU) authorities for potential breaches of tobacco advertising regulations.1314

Screengrab of main page Mission Winnow website, accessed November 2018

The tobacco industry has had a long and close association with F1 motor racing. In the 1970s and 1980s several companies advertised their cigarette brands with full branding and product logos on F1 cars and drivers’ uniforms, including PMI advertising Marlboro on red Ferraris, and Imperial Tobacco with John Player Special.215

In the mid-1980s, Barrie Gill, then CEO of Championship Sports Specialists Ltd., a sports sponsorship company, explained why F1 was such a good fit for the tobacco industry:

“It’s the ideal sport for sponsorship. It’s got glamour and worldwide television coverage. It’s a 10 – month activity involving 16 races in 14 countries with drivers from 16 nationalities. After football it’s the Number One multinational sport. It’s got total global exposure, total global hospitality, total media coverage and 600 million people watching it on TV every fortnight … It’s macho, it’s excitement, it’s colour, it’s international, it’s glamour … They’re there to get visibility. They’re there to sell cigarettes.”7

In the 1990s, with the introduction of tobacco advertising restrictions in key countries where races were to be held, and televised globally, companies became more creative to get around the rules. BAT, for example, began “designing ‘global dark market logos’” which used the colour and design of key cigarettes brands but not their names.2 Concerned that prestigious and lucrative F1 races would be moved to countries with fewer advertising restrictions in place, some governments, including the UK, granted advertising ban exemptions.31617

In 2001, with the WHO FCTC being negotiated, the International Automobile Federation (FIA, Federation Internationale de L’Automobile),18 F1’s governing body, voted to ban tobacco advertising in the sport.1920 After withdrawing its decision in 2003,21 the FIA finally implemented a recommendation against tobacco advertising at the end of 2006. Although this fell short of a ban, tobacco branding became largely absent from F1.2223 However the president of Ferrari dismissed the claim as “nonsense” and Philip Morris’ sponsorship of the sport continued.224

Tobacco Sponsorship of F1 Criticised and Investigated

In February 2019, the European Union’s Health, Food Safety and Energy Union department started investigating sponsorship deals between tobacco companies and F1 teams, and the use of new corporate statements on cars and uniforms.2526 Eight out of the 21 Grand Prix races were scheduled to be held in European countries that year.27

When issuing its statement one month later, just before the Australian Grand Prix, the WHO pointed out that the FCTC Article 13 ban covers “activities with the effect or likely effect of promoting a tobacco product or tobacco use either directly or indirectly”. They criticised BAT for previously stating that its partnership with McLaren would give it a “global platform to drive greater resonance of certain products, including glo, a heated tobacco product”.11 The WHO said this indicated that “the company’s intent is to promote tobacco use”.11 They also noted that PMI had registered the ‘Mission Winnow’ logo as a trademark “including for use with respect to tobacco products”.11 Although PMI later revised the trademark, it remained active in respect of heated tobacco products (HTPs).2829 (See below for BAT’s 2020 registration).

The WHO emphasised that the ban included “hosting or receiving broadcasts of Formula 1 and MotoGP events” with “preventative action” potentially including preventing the screening of events.11 The President of the FIA, the governing body of F1, backed the WHO’s position saying that the two organisations were “aligned very closely” in relation to tobacco advertising.30 This followed an earlier statement that, since 2006, the FIA had “strongly opposed the presence of any advertising or sponsorship for cigarettes or tobacco products in connection with its championships and nothing has changed to that approach.”31. However they did not agree to reconsider sponsorship of teams by tobacco companies.32

In May 2019, media reports stated that F1 was in talks with Morocco with a view to holding a Grand Prix race in the country.3334 This would be the first race to be held in Morroco since 1958, and the first in Africa since 1993 (when the Johannesburg Grand Prix was held in South Africa).  In June 2020, it was reported that well-known Mercedes team driver Lewis Hamilton was “really pushing” F1 for the race to be held in Africa.35 Were this push to succeed, it would represent a significant marketing opportunity for tobacco companies in Africa.

In spring 2019, there was widespread criticism of tobacco companies for their flouting of advertising rules, and for Formula One for allowing this activity to continue.363738 However, governments also need to act to tighten legislation.

In Australia, the health minister in the state of Victoria, home to the Melbourne Grand Prix,  announced in August 2019 that it would close a loophole in its legislation to prevent the “sneaky tactics” used by tobacco companies to circumvent existing laws.3940 The amendment was passed into law in October 2019.41

Philip Morris and Ferrari

Ferrari is the most valuable F1 team in the world, worth US$1.3 billion in 2017,42 and the most successful in terms of race wins.43 PMI has had a long relationship with Ferrari that started in 1984,44 and the tobacco company’s cigarette brand Marlboro has been Ferrari’s title sponsor since 1997,24546 after switching from McLaren in 1996.1547

Senior PMI board members have been on the board of Ferrari, and vice versa. For example, in July 2018, PMI non-executive Chairman Louis C. Camilleri was appointed Ferrari’s Chief Executive Officer, following the death of Ferrari’s chairman Sergio Marchionne.48 Marchionne had been a member of the PMI Board until his death.4950

Ferrari was headed by former Philip Morris marketing executive Maurizio Arrivabene until January 2019.51

In September 2017, Philip Morris renewed its partnership with Ferrari,4546 a sponsorship deal which Sports Pro Magazine had previously estimated cost the tobacco company in the region of US$160 million a year.45 Estimates from 2018 put the annual figure around $50 million per year.52 In 2020, motorsport website GP Fans estimated that the company has spent US$625 million sponsoring F1 over the previous decade.53

In 2018, Ferrari and PMI announced their new promotional campaign called “Mission Winnow”.54 PMI’s CEO André Calantzopoulos announced that “Through Mission Winnow we want to let the world know how we have changed, to share our pride in the transformation that people of PMI have achieved as well as our dedication to rigorous science and innovation that can lead to a better future”,55 indicating that this campaign was more about presenting an image of corporate social responsibility than sport.

The Mission Winnow logo had first appeared on Scuderia Ferrari’s cars and drivers’ uniforms at the Japanese Grand Prix in October 2018 when it was criticized as a form of marketing for Marlboro, due to the similarity of the design in shape and colour,2356 leading to an investigation by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).13 After separate investigations by the Australian Department of Health and the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services,14 in March 2019 the Mission Winnow branding was dropped from Ferrari’s official team name and cars ahead of the first event of the year, the Australian Grand Prix.57 According to Ferrari Chief Executive, and PMI chairman, Louis C. Camilleri “There were problems with the Department of Health and Philip Morris did not have time to find a solution”.58 He went on to say that “Winnow is not a brand, however. It has nothing to do with tobacco but is about the transition from cigarettes to electronic (products)”.

Camilleri’s statement was echoed by PMI’s Director of Global Communication, Tommaso di Giovanni, who claimed that “Mission Winnow is a window to the new Philip Morris International and our partners, to our commitment and the stimuli that drive us to improve and evolve. And to contribute to the progress of society”.59. The Mission Winnow branding was back on the car and drivers’ clothing at the Azerbaijan race at the end of April.

In June 2019 Jacek Olczak, Chief Operating Officer at PMI, was quoted as saying, in response to critics:

“We put Mission Winnow on the car and somebody told us it looks like Marlboro. I said, ‘Look, I think you should go to a doctor, OK?’”60

After a period of ‘on-off’ branding in both F1 and MotoGP (see below), in June 2019 PMI were reported to be considering removing the Mission Winnow branding entirely for the remainder of the season.61

Other promotional and CSR activity by PMI around F1 has helped to raise the profile of this initiative. For example it published a book called Winnow Your Words: Kimi’s Book of Haiku, written by Ferrari team member Kimi Raikkonen62 (who at the time had over 1.3 million followers on Instagram). It was presented at the Japanese Grand Prix in October 2018, and subsequently sold by Autosport Media to raise funds for charity. The book is a collection of the driver’s “words of wisdom” written as Haiku, a traditional form or Japanese poetry, and the Mission Winnow logo appears prominently on the cover.63

At the Monaco Grand Prix in May 2019, PMI paid for and hosted an event on a luxury yacht, where celebrities and corporate guests, in addition to being given meals and entertainment, could meet Formula 1 Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc.64 Vettel was also present at an “exclusive breakfast” in August 2019, organised by PMI’s insurance company Reviti where the subject was “making positive lifestyle choices”.65

In Italy in June 2019, PMI hosted a F1 event for military veterans at the Fiorano racing circuit. A PMI Press Release quoted Zielinski: “Being surrounded by the courage and resilience of people here today who, in their service, risked their lives and everything they held dear is inspiring to many of us at Philip Morris” .66

British American Tobacco and McLaren

Screengrab of McLaren website, accessed April 2019

McLaren is the second most successful F1 team in the world after Ferrari, in terms of race wins,43 and in 2017 was worth $640 million.42 In the 1990s and early 2000s BAT owned an F1 team (Tyrell, relaunched as British American Racing in 1999) through which it primarily promoted its Lucky Strike cigarette brand.367 The team was sold in 2006, around the time of the introduction of the FIA advertising ban, and BAT’s sponsorship of F1 appeared to have ended completely.68

However, in February 2019 McLaren announced a new sponsorship deal with BAT, launched as the “Better Tomorrow” campaign, under BAT’s “Transforming Tobacco” initiative.69 This initiative promotes BAT’s e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products which BAT and McLaren portray as “potentially reduced risk”.6970

When announcing the deal both companies emphasised their technology collaboration on “batteries, advanced materials and design”,71 rather than BAT’s tobacco and nicotine products. McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown went as far as to say that the partnership with BAT was “technology based with their newer generation products. We don’t have any relationship with the tobacco side of the business”.72

The “Better Tomorrow” branding first appeared on McLaren’s new cars at its season launch in February 2019.73 As with PMI’s “Mission Winnow” there was criticism of the BAT-McLaren deal in Australia.74 One month later, shortly before the Australian Grand Prix, McLaren announced that it would be removing BAT’s “A Better Tomorrow” branding from its cars and drivers, with BAT stating that it was “mindful of the stance that the Australian government currently takes towards potentially reduced risk products”.75

At the end of March 2019, McLaren cars appeared at the Bahrain Grand Prix with branding for Vype, BAT’s e-cigarette.7677 The branding reappeared for the Azerbaijan race at the end of April.

BAT, unlike Philip Morris, stated in an interview with Autosport in June 2019 that it remained “committed to” its Better Tomorrow branding, and would be using it “in line with local legal and regulatory environments and what makes sense for our brands”.78 The unnamed spokesperson said:

“It would be inappropriate to comment on what a competitor may or may not be doing…However we are proud of our partnership with McLaren, which is about accelerating our transforming tobacco ambition and driving awareness of our potentially reduced-risk products (PRRPs), and our on-car branding plays an important role in this.78

They also stated that the campaign had no relationship with “the tobacco side of the business”.78 “Better Tomorrow” was registered by BAT (Nicoventures) as a trademark in respect to tobacco products as well as next generation products.79

In November 2019, BAT was upgraded to “principal partner” with McLaren, which included more branding positions on the cars for 2020.80 It was reported that BAT was intending to promote its Velo nicotine pouches and Vuse e-cigarettes. It was not clear if it was also planning to promote its HTP glo under the Better Tomorrow branding.81

BAT also extended its sponsorship reach in the US, through McLaren re-entering IndyCar racing in 2020.8283

Motorcycle Racing

The tobacco industry has also had a long association with motorcycle racing, although sponsorship of the sport has not attracted the same level of global media attention as F1.

PMI and Ducati

PMI has sponsored Dorna Sports S.L , which holds the global commercial rights for MotoGP, since 1992.84 In November 2018 it was announced that the sponsorship agreement between the two companies had been extended until 2021.85

PMI has also been the title sponsor of the Ducati motorcycle team since 2003. In 2018 PMI’s promotional campaign “Mission Winnow” was publicly associated with Ducati,8687 and by 2019 “Mission Winnow” was listed next to PMI as the Ducati ‘Title Partner’.88

At the beginning of 2019 the Mission Winnow branding, on Ducati team motorcycles and riders’ uniforms, was revealed at an event at PMI’s Research and Development facility in Switzerland.89 Miroslaw Zielinski, PMI’s President Science and Innovation, spoke about the sponsorship agreement and focussed, as with F1, on innovation and technology rather than tobacco:“…Ducati is one of the most inspiring and resilient brands in MotoGP, with a 70-year history in racing. The team’s determination to do better every race, to think unconventionally and to continuously push the boundaries of technology perfectly exemplify Mission Winnow.”89

Ducati’s first use of the “Mission Winnow” branding at the Qatar MotoGP, in March 2019, seemed to go unnoticed and unchallenged by the media or the sport’s governing body, the International Motorcycling Federation (FIM, Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme),90 and appeared again at the second event of the season in Argentina.91

Transform Magazine reported, in an article quoting an interview with Riccardo Parino, Vice President of Global Event Partnerships at PMI, that the company used its riders as brand ambassadors to communicate with fans.92

After particular scrutiny of the branding, particularly in F1, PMI were reported in June 2019 to be considering removing the Mission Winnow branding in the Ducati team as well as Ferrari, for the rest of the season.61

On 23 January 2020, Mission Winnow branding was back on Ducati bikes, ahead of the first event of the 2020 racing season in Sepang, Malaysia on 7 February.93

Imperial Tobacco’s Rizla

Rizla, manufacturer of cigarette papers and owned by Imperial Tobacco since 1997, has sponsored Suzuki MotorGP, the motorcycling racing team of Suzuki in the MotorGP World Championship, since 2006. In 2009 the sponsorship deal was extended for one year, reportedly for US$7 million,94 and in 2010 for a further two years.95

Since April 2016 Rizla has also sponsored the Yahama World Superbike Championship team.96 and their logos appear prominently on the team website.97

Virtual Races During Covid-19 Pandemic

In June 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic when live F1 racing was suspended, the McLaren website hosted a computer game competition to promote BAT’s nicotine pouch Velo.98 Entrants took part in virtual races, via the Codemasters F1 2019 game, with the final race streamed on McLaren’s YouTube channel “where a group of lucky fans took to Silverstone Circuit to race against McLaren team members and fulfil their true potential”.99 After the race, winners were featured on the Velo Instagram account.100

Entrants were asked for their log-in details for STEAM, a gaming platform available to anyone over the age of 13.101 The McLaren entry form required a date of birth, and had tick boxes to confirm that entrants were over 25 and current users of nicotine or “” (referring to its “Tobacco Heated Products”, or Heated Tobacco Products).98 The terms and conditions stated that this was: “in line with BAT’s commitment to market its products responsibly and appeal only to its target consumer audience with its range of New Category product”.102 While the terms and conditions also stated that the promoter “may require” proof of eligibility, it is not known if this information was cross-checked to ensure the exclusion of younger players.102 The YouTube video of the race was age-restricted.99

Similar activity replaced cancelled MotoGP races, with promoter Dorna Sports reported to have brought forward the release of its MotoGP 20 game.103 It also debuted a virtual racing platform for the season, promoted via social media.104According to “Brands that are central sponsors of MotoGP are embedded in the video game which is required to look exactly like the real race.”103

MotoGP returned to live racing on 19 July 2020 in Spain.105 Formula 1 races also recommenced in July, beginning in Austria.106 Note that some races were planned and then cancelled due to Covid restrictions.

Related Links

TobaccoTactics Resources


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