Leading doctors are demanding an immediate government inquiry into “subliminal” tobacco advertising on Ferrari’s Formula One cars, and the company’s $1 billion relationship with the maker of Marlboro cigarettes, The Times has learnt.
The red, white and black bar code emblazoned on Ferrari’s racing cars and its drivers’ overalls is designed to remind viewers of a packet of Marlboro cigarettes, it is claimed. Under EU legislation it is an offence for a tobacco company to sponsor sporting events.
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.
Formula One teams are due to fly into Spain for the European leg of the season which begins in ten days’ time. The British Grand Prix is on July 11.Don Elgie, chief executive of Creston, which owns the advertising agency DLKW, said he thought that the bar code was subliminal advertising — where a brand is so recognisable that consumers can be reminded of a product without actually seeing it.
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. If you look at how the bar code has evolved over the last four years, it looks like creeping branding.”
Gerard Hastings, director of the Centre for Tobacco Control Research, said: “I think this is advertising. Why a bar code? What is their explanation?”
Frank Dobson, who was Health Secretary between 1997 and 1999, also called for an inquiry. Mr Dobson, now a backbench Labour MP, said: “The tobacco firms were working out years ago how they could advertise if there was a ban on tobacco advertising.”
Spokesmen for Sir Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer, and the Department of Health refused to comment. A spokesperson for the BBC, which has a contract to broadcast Formula One, said: “We are confident that Formula One, and as a result our coverage of Formula One, is fully compliant with regulations.”
In September 2005 Philip Morris, the maker of Marlboro, extended its financial backing for the Ferrari team until 2011, despite the ban on cigarette branding on cars racing in the European Union. The contract is understood to be worth $1 billion over ten years and Philip Morris said Ferraris would not carry Marlboro branding where there was a ban.
A spokesman for the Italian car maker said: “The bar code is part of the livery of the car, it is not part of a subliminal advertising campaign.”
Asked about the Philip Morris contract he said: “$100 million [a year] is not a correct figure. We do not disclose the figure — the figure you mention, it is lower.”
Ferrari is the only Formula One team with a tobacco brand in its formal title, Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro. Its logo also has the bar code and its drivers, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, wear overalls bearing the bar code next to the Ferrari logo on each arm.
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.”
By Suzy Jagger and Rory Watson, Timesonline