Tobacco advertising in sport: Tobacco's last stand

Tobacco advertising in sport is illegal, right? It has been since that infamous Bernie Ecclestone-Tony Blair bribe ran out, hasn’t it? I mean, you don’t see any adverts anymore. The Benson & Hedges cup is no longer on the County Cricket fixtures, and- despite the livery- John Player’s Lotus isn’t a Formula One team. Yet, despite the fact tobacco advertising in sport is illegal in the EU, Marlboro Ferrari didn’t die.


Marlboro was perhaps the most prominent tobacco brand in Formula One history. The ‘MP’ in all McLaren cars never used to stand for ‘McLaren Project’- it originally stood for ‘Marlboro Project’. The Marlboro cars won countless championships, driven by some of the most famous faces in Formula One. Prost, Senna, Häkkinen, Mansell, Piquet, Schumacher. McLaren and latterly Ferrari weren’t unique in their tobacco partnerships. BAT even owned a team- BAR- heavily branded with Lucky Strike logos, piloted by 2009 world champion Jenson Button. West, Benson & Hedges, Rothmans, Camel, JPS, Mild Seven, and Gold Leaf are only a handful of the most famous brands to enter Formula One.

This all came to an end mid-way through the 2005 season. Where before teams were forced to alter their liveries for a handful of races, now tobacco advertisements would be banned in virtually all of the races. Most tobacco companies terminated deals with teams there and then, but Phillip Morris (owner of the Marlboro brand) stood firm. In the three races in which tobacco sponsorship was permitted, Ferrari ran with Marlboro branding. In others, they ran with the ‘barcode’ designed to subliminally make people think of Marlboro. Until the legal pressure became too strong, Ferrari were still officially called ‘Marlboro Ferrari’- only to be renamed ‘Scuderia Ferrari’ at the 2011 British Grand Prix.

That wasn’t it. In 2011, Philip Morris renewed their sponsorship deal with Ferrari. To this day Ferrari race in ‘Marlboro red’- slightly lighter than their traditional colours- and have a deal worth at least $100 million which will run until at least the end of 2015. This year, the head of Scuderia Ferrari was replaced by Marlboro exec Maurizio Arrivabene and it appears there is no end in sight for Formula One’s last tobacco deal. Phillip Morris may have since let out their ad space on Ferrari cars, but are not an advertising agency.


Why, you might ask, are Philip Morris seemingly wasting their money? At this point, their $100 million buys little more than an honourable mention on Scuderia Ferrari’s website, and the revenues made through selling certain rights they hold do not signal a sudden diversification of the tobacco company. But that isn't the point. As tobacco companies find themselves unable to advertise and increasingly less able to control and manipulate their own branding, Philip Morris have turned to the residual effect of their Marlboro brand’s Formula One history to set themselves apart from the increasingly indistinguishable chasing pack. The strategy is simple: as long as there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind about Philip Morris’ relationship with Ferrari, Formula One fans remember the Marlboro glory days- Senna vs Prost, Rosberg, and Schumacher’s unbeatable 2000-2005 seasons.