Chevrons, barcodes and arrows: PMI’s continued subliminal promotion of combustible products

John Baker and Pascal Diethelm

Philip Morris International (PMI) has both actively and subliminally advertised its Marlboro brand in F1 since the 1970’s. Several host countries gradually implemented advertising bans, however at many of these venues, Marlboro-backed teams and drivers raced with chevrons, and chevron-themed track signage was also visible. At other venues, teams used a barcode-style design in place of Marlboro branding. In 2015, the Grand Prix Drivers Association conducted a fan survey with 130,000 participants from 194 countries. Respondents were asked to recall five brands that sponsor F1. Nearly 8 years after the last active display of Marlboro on the Ferrari F1 cars, the brand was still recalled by 24% of participants.

Philip Morris’ Mission Winnow claims that it aims to “…drive change by constantly searching for better ways of doing things” and PMI is “…constantly improving and evolving.” However, a review of media releases and statements from the Scuderia Ferrari F1 team (previously Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro until July 2011) from 2010 relating to the barcode design on Ferrari’s F1 cars reveals a striking continuity in the PMI approach. A comparison of the historical language with that used on the current Mission Winnow website suggests that PMI is simply looking to continue subverting existing tobacco advertising laws to keep its Marlboro brand at the forefront of fans’ minds, particularly with the ex-CEO of PMI, Louis Camilleri, becoming the Ferrari CEO in July 2018.

In late April 2010, an article (originally published in The Times newspaper) from the Royal College of Physicians claimed that the barcode-style design used by Ferrari was subliminally advertising Marlboro (also see here). In response, a spokesperson for Ferrari stated “The barcode is part of the livery of the car. It is not part of a subliminal advertising campaign.” and a representative from PMI also stated in the same article that the deal complied with the law. Then-Ferrari President, Luca di Montezemolo, also stated that “The so-called barcode is an integral part of the livery of the car and of all images coordinated by the Scuderia…Furthermore, if it was a case of advertising branding, Philip Morris would have to own a legal copyright on it.” The Ducati MotoGP team (then titled Ducati Marlboro Team) raced with an identical barcode design on their motorbikes in 2010, also with PMI as title sponsor. In  the case of Mission Winnow, PMI owns the copyright: the company has registered both the name and logo in Nice class 34 “tobacco products”. They are therefore undeniably tobacco product trademarks.

In early May 2010, a statement from the Ferrari team then declared that “Together with Philip Morris International we have decided to modify the livery of our cars…This decision was taken in order to remove all speculation concerning the so-called ‘barcode’ which was never intended to be a reference to a tobacco brand.” The statement also claimed that “There has been no logo or branding on the race cars since 2007, even in countries where local laws would still have permitted it.” Similarly on the FAQ section of the Mission Winnow website, there are numerous examples where almost identical statements are made. For example …since 2007, we have voluntarily removed all tobacco branding from the cars, bikes, drivers’ and riders’ uniforms and racetrack signage, even in countries where such branding was or is permitted.”

A question listed on the FAQs for Mission Winnow asks “…is this yet another effort by PMI for subliminal advertising of cigarettes?”  The answer stated: “The design is not intended in any way to reflect our brands or products…we will not use our partners to advertise our products.” The question seems to imply that PMI has previously attempted to subliminally advertise tobacco.

Of the 11 questions and 11 answers in the FAQ section, tobacco advertising, branding, promotion or sponsorship are mentioned 19 times, and tobacco, tobacco products or cigarettes are also mentioned 8 times. It should be noted that the FAQ section has been updated since it launched in October 2018, with references to Marlboro and IQOS now removed (see P3 for further details).

It was recently announced in Australia’s The Age newspaper that the Australian Department of Health and Victorian state Department of Health and Human Services are investigating whether this latest initiative is in breach of tobacco advertising laws. It has been suggested that the Mission Winnow branding is reminiscent of a cigarette and the chevron-style logo is similar to the Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro logo previously used. The Mission Winnow chevron design is also very similar to that used by PMI during the Be Marlboro campaign, and six red chevrons can be identified in the Mission Winnow text.

The Mission Winnow logo with chevrons highlighted






Australian surgeon and anti-tobacco campaigner Dr John Cunningham, who raised the issue with authorities, was quoted by The Age as saying “It [Mission Winnow] has nothing to do with F1 cars, that’s for sure. Tobacco companies are finally admitting that their only means of financial survival is to get people addicted to nicotine, and they’re going to pour money into researching how to do that most effectively—not for the benefit of their addicted customers, but for the benefit of their profits and shareholders.” It is estimated that the Australian Grand Prix alone was watched by 20 million to 50 million people in 2014.

It appears that the Mission Winnow campaign is based on similar arguments relating to the Ferrari barcode design in 2010. Mission Winnow appears to be using the power of persuasion and their history of both active and subliminal advertising of Marlboro in F1 and MotoGP to continue promoting this association.

The Mission Winnow campaign highlights yet another failing by the sport’s governing body, the FIA, to completely remove tobacco advertising and sponsorship from international motorsports. Perhaps encouraged by PMI’s initiative, British American Tobacco (BAT) and the McLaren F1 team recently announced a new partnership titled “A Better Tomorrow.”

The Mission Winnow campaign also emphasises the need for the WHO FCTC signatories (including nearly all host nations of international motorsports) to urgently enforce the treaty guidelines on Article 13, which state that “Promotional effects, both direct and indirect, may be brought about by the use of words, designs, images, sounds and colours, including brand names, trademarks, logos, names of tobacco manufacturers or importers, and colours or schemes of colours associated with tobacco products, manufacturers or importers, or by the use of a part or parts of words, designs, images and colours. Promotion of tobacco companies themselves (sometimes referred to as corporate promotion) is a form of promotion of tobacco products or tobacco use, even without the presentation of brand names or trademarks.”

Such enforcement of FCTC Article 13 would be a significant step in eliminating the industry’s long history of using astroturfing groups, front-groups and subliminal advertising to promote its own interests and products.

PMI’s CEO, Andres Calantzopoulos, was recently quoted on Twitter stating “If we stopped selling cigarettes tomorrow, someone else would take our place.” For this to become a reality soon, PMI should show a strong commitment to reducing tobacco-related harm by immediately ceasing all cigarette manufacturing, advertising and sponsorship worldwide to expedite this change. However, PMI’s ongoing attempts to subliminally advertise their Marlboro brand suggest that they are constantly searching for better ways to continue promoting their combustible products instead of urgently addressing their role as a significant contributor to the global tobacco epidemic.

John Baker is a PhD candidate at La Trobe University, Australia. He can be contacted at Pascal Diethelm is the president of OxySuisse, Geneva, Switzerland.


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