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292. The. Sneakiest. Design. Ever.

Man, I have never gone this long without posting something. Yes, there's been a lot going on and since I'm now freelancing and back living in the western hemisphere, my schedule is all out of whack. But I'm ready to get back to my normal blog schedule and writing about what's been going on in advertising and design. I will say this though - lately, I've been pretty bored with everything that I've been seeing. Anyone else feel this way?

But this caught my attention and is anything but boring.

Imagine yourself as a major sponsor of the biggest and most successful Formula One racing team. Your identity and brand is intertwined with the race team and to some extent Formula One itself. You are in negotiations to financially sponsor this race team for the next five years and are willing to pay about $1 billion to do so. Unfortunately for you, the European Union is set to pass a ban on cigarette advertising and your company manufactures and globally markets cigarettes.

The law goes something like this: The Tobacco Advertising Directive: Passed by the European Parliament and Council in 2003 (see:IP/02/1788), the Directive bans tobacco advertising in the print media, on radio and over the internet. It also prohibits tobacco sponsorship of cross-border cultural and sporting events. The best I can tell is that this went into effect in 2005. Right around the same time as your contract negotiations.

Obviously, Formula One qualifies as a cross-border cultural and sporting event, but you go forward with your sponsorship anyway. And you state that the race team's Ferraris would simply not carry your brand's logo where there was this ban in place. Got all that?

This is exactly what has been happening with Marlboro. They've spent a ton of money to sponsor Ferrari's Formula One team without being able to brand the cars under this sponsorship. Basically, the Ferrari's appear to have no major sponsorship when raced in the EU. End of story? Not exactly.

In January, Ferrari presented the new Scuderia Marlboro F1 single-seater. (Ferrari is the only Formula One team with a tobacco brand in its formal title, Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro.) At first glance the car is void of major sponsorship per the rules and has gone relatively unnoticed over the last four months. Now, however, 4 races into the year, the EU portion of the Formula One season is about to begin in Spain and the car's livery is in the spotlight due to the team's unique solution to the ban on advertsing.

The 2010 Ferrari Scuderia (Marlboro) F1, innocent top view:

The livery (paint job) features a predominately red car with a number of associate sponsor logos; Shell Gasoline, Ferrari itself, Bridgestone and a few others. The most striking aspect of this design and the subject of this article is a red, black and white barcode-like design on the canopy of the vehicle, as well as on the uniforms of drivers Fernando Alonso and Felipa Massa. Up close it just looks like a cool aesthetic touch but from a distance (and possibly even more clearly when moving 200 mph) it appears to resemble the packaging of a certain cigarette manufacturer. Can you guess which one?

The 2010 Ferrari Scuderia (Marlboro) F1, side view:

Another Larger View (click for expanded version):

The EU authorities are not amused. According to the Times (UK), "Yesterday a spokesman for the European Public Health Commissioner said he thought that Marlboro’s approach constituted potential subliminal marketing. He urged the Spanish and British governments to ascertain whether the world’s second-biggest tobacco company might be in breach of the law." Now, I think they may have their terms incorrect. I don't think it's technically a subliminal thing at all. It's more like an optical illusion, but it's hard to deny the intent of the manufacturue and racing team to skirt the law for the upcoming Spanish Grand Prix and for this summer's British Grand Prix.

The Barcode Design on Team Firesuits and Uniforms:

This quote comes from the Times as well: John Britton, a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and director of its tobacco advisory group, said: “The bar code looks like the bottom half of a packet of Marlboro cigarettes. I was stunned when I saw it. This is pushing at the limits..." But true to form, Marlboro is denying these claims. Philip Morris said: “We are confident that our relationship with Ferrari does not violate the UK 2002 Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act. The Formula One Grand Prix in the UK does not involve any race cars, team apparel, equipment or track signage carrying tobacco product branding. The same is true for all other Formula One races across the world.

The Ferrari Scuderia (Marlboro) F1 Team Logo Featuring Barcode:

Let me say two things. First, this is the most insanely creative design solution that I've seen in a long, long time. It's nothing short of genius. Second, it further demonstrates how desperate tobacco companies are to market their product in an increasingly legislated environment. This ingenius design only underscores what we think about these companies and although I love the design approach and problem solving, it's easy to see the intent here was to find a loophole in the law. In other words: to be sneaky. And this has been something in the works over time. Check out the 2006 car below, followed by 2007 and then compare that to this year's car. It's as if Marlboro has been trying to use  a more innocent barcode design early on and then tweak it over time so there would be a precedent for the barcode as an team logo—even if it began to resemble the Marlboro packaging. Have I said the word genius yet? Or do I mean evil?

The Pre-Legislation Ferrari Marlboro Livery, circa 2005:

The Early Barcode Ferrari Marlboro Livery, circa 2007:

Detail shot of the 2010 Barcode Design:

It will be intersting to see how this little drama develops. Obviously this involves a lot of money, large corporations, even larger government entities and a deadline of a few days. And best of all maybe, it involves design and what does and does not constitute a brand's logo. Stay tuned. I promise to update this as soon as I get more information. See a little exploration / comparison of the barcode design and Marlboro combination mark. It's amazing how far away the two pieces are yet so close.

The Barcode on TV during the Australian GP:

A Visual Comparison of the Barcode (roughly comped) and the Marlboro Logo:


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References (3)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.
  • Response
    Response: MarllIIlIIlIIlro
    About The. Sneakiest. Design. Ever. at Graphicology. Indeed....
  • Response
    Eurotopia has placed a ban on tobacco companies sponsoring or advertising in any sports related event. But some companies have figured out a clever way to work around the ban using clever graphic design. (After the break) I find smoking...
  • Response
    Response: .txt/100515
    Recently starred in Google Reader: Ali Fard contributes a guest post on submarine communication cables and connectivity and data centres in Africa to InfraNet Lab. Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg are the subject of an Infosthetics interview

Reader Comments (49)

Have to say I missed that one and saw it as a barcode and always wondered what it was
May 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSteve
It's not deceptive when many adults who follow the sport are in on the joke. And if you're sophisticated enough to get it, then you're sophisticated enough to make an independent decision about smoking. Impressionable youngsters won't be led astray, and oldsters don't need nanny-state regulation to look after them. All advertising is, by definition, manipulative, but we understand that and choose our psychological filters accordingly. I'll add this: If you care enough about the sport to watch it, then you can't grumble too loudly that for the sake of an eye-wink, another $1B supports your team. No moralistic hand-wringing required here.
May 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLeFiffre
They should just have the drivers legally change their first names to Marlboro.
May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMe
I don't get the barcode design, but I do have the urge to take up smoking.
Mission accomplished!
May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher Drum
I'd love to see somebody start using that same graphic for other purposes. Marlboro can't sue since otherwise that would be admitting it was a representation for Marlboro. If they admit that, then they break F1's rules.
May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBill
It's disgusting when corporations exploit loopholes in order to circumvent the law.
May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMark Alan Thomas
Just for further information, Marlboro owns the entire rights to sponsorship on the Ferarri F1 cars. They then "resell" the space to the other sponsors appearing on the car. As far as I know, this is unique in F1 sponsorship.
May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Needham
Someone should use those bar code designs for a cigarette carton. Marlboro wouldn’t be able to sue them under trademark law without claiming the design as a branded trademark and therefore admitting to violating the law. Meanwhile, the new company would get free advertising at their competitor’s expense.
May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSean Fitzroy
Interestingly, reading this article and its associated comments has exposed me to tobacco brand-names more than I can recall happening recently (ie. the last year or so). Furthermore, it's in a generally positive context.
This article would've been better had it examined the point of view of the advertising company (or, if that company is simply an arm of a tobacco company, the advertising team) who created it. In all truth, there was no need to mention any tobacco company by name at all.
Articles such as this one were factored in to the original advertising plan, of that I have no doubt. The discussion would have been: while our logo is still on the cars, we're advertising; when the logos are discovered, we'll gain name-placement in conversations and articles as people discuss the ploy's ingenuity. And the latter'll cost us nothing…
May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSiRG
I live in Dublin and there are tonnes of banners around the city at the moment that were sponsored by Heineken, but seeing as alcoholic brands can't advertise on Dublin City Council banners they just paid for them to be plain in their distinctive colour green. There have been some complaints here also about subliminal advertising...
May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEmmet
Speaking as someone who has never watched racing, I have to consider this a failure. I don't see a Marlboro logo there even after seeing your comparison. It's certainly not branding that's doing them any good unless the announcers chat about it...
May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Moncur
Great article.

The replacement of logos and brands with substitutes is something that Martin Lindstrom covers in 'Buyology':

"My question was this: Can the desire to smoke be triggered by images merely associated with a brand: images of a camel, a windswept desert, a rugged-looking cowboy or Marlboro's well-known sponsorship of the European Formula One racing circuit, which has forged an inextricable link between smoking and the company's bright red Ferraris? Do smokers even need to process the logos "Marlboro" or "Camel" for the craving spots in their brains to become activated?

Over a two-month period, Project Buyology exposed both social and long-time smokers, as well as non-smokers, to a raft of suggestive images as the fMRI painstakingly scanned their brains.

First, both groups were shown subliminal images that had no overt connection to cigarette brands--those he-man cowboys, sunsets, camels and deserts. Next, they were shown explicit cigarette advertising images including the Marlboro Man and Joe Camel hunched over his motorcycle, as well as the Marlboro and Camel logos. Our goal was to determine if the subliminal images would generate similar cravings to those generated both by the logos and by the clearly marked Marlboro and Camel packs.

Not surprisingly, as they viewed the actual cigarette packs, the MRI scans revealed a pronounced response in our smokers' nucleus accumbens, a small region in the brain associated with reward, craving and addiction. Far more intriguing was that when the smokers were briefly exposed to the subliminal imagery, their nucleus accumbens lit up even more pronouncedly in the same regions they had when they viewed the explicit images of the packs and logos.

In other words, the iconic imagery merely associated with Camels and Marlboros, such as the Ferrari and the Western sunset, brought on a higher craving activation than either the logos or the actual pictures on the cigarette packs themselves.

But wait a second--why? Well, whether it's due to brand boredom, increased media sophistication or consumers' by-now cast-iron defense mechanisms, when we're exposed to logos, our guards go up. We know we're being manipulated, and we'll do anything in our power to prevent that logo from winning.

So in practical terms, what does our research experiment portend? Think about this: Nearly a century ago, when the first-ever Coca-Cola bottle was in the planning stages, the designer received his marching orders. Company executives wanted him to develop a bottle so distinctive that if you smashed it against a wall, you'd still be able to recognize the pieces as part of a Coke bottle. The designer did what he was told, and to this day it works.

For obvious reasons, I call this philosophy "Smash Your Brand." Even back in 1915, Coke's aim was to replace its logo with a "smashable" component. Today, "smashable" could mean anything from a color, a shape, a sound, a fragrance, a design or any other indirect signal that tells a subtle, suggestive and logo-free story.

See that new iPod Touch over there? Where, on its front, is the word "Apple" spelled out? Nowhere. Did you happen to catch Disney's Pixar's latest flick, Wall-E? Did the white, gleaming female robot heroine put you in mind of anything in particular (such as any one of several Apple products)? That familiar sloping roof, that robin's-egg-blue box--are you thinking, as I am, of McDonald's and Tiffany?

Instead of flashing another logo, or bringing out yet another forgettable movie product placement--all of which will only induce consumers to respond defensively and critically--in the future the simple power of suggestion will entice customers to accompany advertisers on a journey, at the same time engaging their subconscious minds."
May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSimon
jj - "I don't think they believe that someone will smoke just because of the placement, or be more brand loyal b/c of the positioning, I just think they paid a billion dollars to sponsor a team.."

... just read what you wrote again, slowly.
May 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNeil
Very creative and interesting.
May 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBL
way over sensationalized
The Philip Morris got to keep ONE sponsorship and has played by the rules.
Get over it
May 14, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjohn
Regardless of any 'evil' intent or the specific graphical techniques used - Marlboro certainly got their moneys' worth in word-of-mouth as evidenced by this and other similar stories.
May 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTomT
OK, I'm totally confused by this post. How does the barcode look like the Marlboro logo? Is it Morse code or something? I don't get it.
May 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeff
What would have been more innovative, and more useful, would be to have something similar that looks like a bunch of junk when the car is standing still, but shows the logo when the car whizzes by at 150 miles per hour....
May 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChuck Lasker
Even the empty box will be a useful promotional tool for a while.

"What does that empty box mean?"
"Oh, that's where the Marlboro logo used to be."
May 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBrad
"Even the empty box will be a useful promotional tool for a while. 'What does that empty box mean?' /'Oh, that's where the Marlboro logo used to be.'"

If I were Marlboro, i would have written this into the red box:
"No cigarette ad here." ;)
May 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

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