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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)

Well researched and well written.

Pure genius in design - tho myself not a smoker.
May 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaul
Sneaky? Maybe. Secret? Not really.
As has been said already, this has been going on for years. I wonder who the clever ones really are. The tobacco companies for keeping their brand, in whatever limited form, in the media, or the race teams for selling advertising space to someone who can't use it to it's full advantage?

Being a racing fan since I was knee high to a grasshopper, I remember the days of the grid resembling a tobacconists top shelf so have seen the transition first hand. I looked forward to seeing what the text had been swapped for at the next race- 'Look alike' on the Lucky Strike BARs, 'Bitten and Hisses' on the B&H Jordans (which were painted like snakes, or 'Buzzin Hornets' when they were painted like bees/wasps/hornets), Mika and David on the West Mclarens. Some were less inspiring like the Camel Yamahas just writing 'TEAM' or Gauloises GO!!!!!!!.

I thought this was common knowledge and was surprised at seeing this article to begin with. A few commentors have made me think that there will be viewers younger than me that don't remember the change and the barcode means nothing. In which case maybe we'll see the end of this in a few years as the number of those 'in the know' decreases.
May 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIan W
If we want to go down the rabbit hole of deviousness, here's a further scenario:

1. Ferrari/Marlboro plans the devious scheme you hypothesize here.
2. Partway through the season they do some market research and determine that the subliminal similarity is not having the intended effect.
3. They anonymously leak the similarity to the press, which goes wild with stories. They, of course, deny everything, but remove the allegedly similar logo.
4. Everyone reads the stories. Now everyone will think "Marlboro" when they see the car, regardless of what logo is used.
May 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMatt
Jordan replaced Benson Hedges with Buzzin Hornets
(as well as for just one race "Bitten Heroes")
and also, one of the best concepts, but visually less appealing executed: "Be on Edge":
May 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAaron
If some company sponsors the vehicle in a mega event , don't think that it would not have the right to affix its bar code on the car. But where the rules comes you can't say any thing . Such sort of advertisement truly amazed me that how Ferrari got the idea which can't be caught so easily by authorities. Nice innovation
May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMartin Auto Repair
ten thumbs up...its really artistic and smart...put 'em bastards awgains the wall...what they gonna do?? ban graphic design next....excuseme...i feel like smoking a cigarette.

May 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterISRAEL U.
Marlboro will probably get more exposure from this scandal than from the actual car!
September 30, 2010 | Unregistered Commentercharlotte web design
Not sure what they will try to do if regulations pass requiring Big Tobacco to sell olive green packs of cigarettes, like in Australia!

Tim Ferenchick, MD
May 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDr. Tim Ferenchick
Has anyone noticed that the new Ferrari logo looks suspiciously like the top of a cigarette packet, viewed side on? A red and white cigarette packet at that too.
October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph Thrush

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