Packaging F1’s magic
Watching a Formula 1 race these days is an immersive experience. With the full weekend’s sessions exhaustively covered by more than 50 cameras, a squad of expert commentators and guest panellists and team radio for all to hear, it truly is Access All Areas. With this level of coverage, it’s no wonder many of today’s viewers think themselves as informed as any team principal.
It wasn’t always this way. Philip Porter recalls a time, before Murray Walker, when Raymond Baxter would commentate on Grands Prix for the BBC in a programme constantly interrupted by crossings to the ‘far more important’ horse races. Philip recalls the coverage would go something like this…
‘“Now it’s over to Raymond Baxter for the closing stages of the British Grand Prix.” And he would always start with, “76 laps gone, four to go. And this is really exciting, Hill and Clark are tussling for the lead. And now we're going off to the 3.20 at Haydock.” So annoying. It was years before we had proper coverage.’
For a very long time there were too few cameras to cover the action in any meaningful way – basically a few static views and the odd panning shot. Although full-race coverage would eventually become the norm, the dull visuals continued for decades. For example, at the 1985 Dutch Grand Prix, local broadcaster NOS utilised just eight trackside cameras to cover the entire event.
In the ’80s and ’90s, a different frustration arose as the so-called World Feed was produced by the various local broadcasters whose directors would (understandably) prioritise home-grown heroes over potentially more exciting race action. Who doesn’t remember missing a wheel-to-wheel battle for the lead because a particular national hero was being lapped for the second time by the guy in 14th?
Of course it didn’t really help that most cars had some brand of tobacco sponsorship plastered across their bodywork. Sure, the money was crucial to the sport’s existence, and some of those liveries transcended their initial marketing purpose to become icons in their own right – JPS Lotus 79 anyone? However, to the casual observer, it was Camel versus Marlboro, Mild Seven chasing Barclay, Philip Morris up against BAT and Japanese Tobacco. Formula 1 was too easily dismissed by the casual observer as just packs of cigarettes chasing each other around for two hours on a Sunday.
Despite funding much of Formula 1, every sponsor was at the mercy of whatever television corporation’s Director of Production was involved. For one tobacco company in particular, pumping huge amounts of money into the sport without a say in the coverage was becoming untenable and so it hatched a plan that would leave a lasting impression while simultaneously changing public perceptions of F1.
Bob Kedward, former Regional Creative Director for international ad agency Leo Burnett in the late 1980s/early '90s in charge of the Marlboro account for Philip Morris, takes up the story…
‘One afternoon I received a call from John Hogan, VP Marketing for Philip Morris Europe. He said in his distinctive Aussie accent, “Hey Bobby, we need to have a chat. When can you get over to Lausanne?” I sensed it was something important.
Above: Robert ‘Bob’ Kedward (left) poses with John ‘Hogie’ Hogan
‘I knew John very well, a much-respected pioneer in F1 sponsorship, and someone who over the years had a huge influence in the career trajectory of many drivers from Fittipaldi to Schumacher. He was very influential within the higher echelons of Formula 1. He was equally conscious of the vast amount of money that Philip Morris International (PMI) were putting into the sport and wanted a better return on its investment. PMI’s own research into the average television viewer’s exposure to the Marlboro branding during any given Grand Prix transmission was not nearly representative of their investment.
‘After explaining how they were always at the mercy of national TV controllers as to what the public saw during an F1 race, he asked what we could do to modify the situation, and to give Marlboro more of a perceived ownership of F1. Consistently winning races was a good start!
‘Marlboro-sponsored McLarens had won titles with Lauda and Prost, and now Senna was beginning to make a huge impression. So they were on a roll, and spending more and more money – by far the biggest patron of motor racing at the time. Hogan’s question was: “What can we do better?”
‘So I hand-picked a team of creatives – writers, art directors, TV producers – from some of our network agencies and got to work thinking up all the ways we could showcase the high-octane excitement of the F1 world and give it a distinctive edge.
‘Hardly anyone in the late ’80s knew what a pitstop was all about. You just saw a car disappear down an alley, and then reappear three minutes later with new wheels or something. So portraying a more controlled understanding of the exhilaration of motor racing’s pinnacle was an important factor.
‘At the same time we needed to be mindful of the huge potential markets in the Far East, Latin America and the Middle East where interest in motorsport and TV reach was expanding at a rapid pace. No longer a predominantly European series, F1 was becoming a global event with broadcast coverage immensely important.
‘They (PMI) had the money, the clout and more importantly the vision. I was given six months and carte blanche to formulate something special. The overall objective was to create a comprehensive uniform campaign and guidelines with a ready-to-air kit of TV spots, billboards, print ads, promo platforms etc., available for use if appropriate by the key Leo Burnett and PMI offices across the world.’
As Bob began to show us the many ideas finalised by the agency under the umbrella of the Marlboro World Championship Team, slide after slide of print ad and outdoor layouts; memories of seeing these 30-plus-year-old ads came flooding back.
Above: A champion shines, even when it pours.
Above: When a car’s length can decide a winner, you learn to cut corners.
The different elements in the media mix sought to ignite interest and curiosity in Formula 1 by showcasing the excitement of the sport through the vehicle of the Marlboro World Championship Team. In addition to supporting the brand, the campaign was surprisingly educational and insightful, as Bob explains…
'Many people failed to understand the sophistication of F1; what type of engines were used, how much pressure the drivers were under, or how conditions affected them. For most it was just a car moving very, very fast, and you had to be very, very brave to drive it. We deliberately attempted to elevate the principal drivers from mere heroes to superhero status. Believe me, Senna felt that way. He was so, so extraordinary. As a racer, and as a person.’
How Kedward’s team went about elevating both the stature of the drivers as well as the sport's visual profile played a significant role in unlocking F1 interest and coverage, setting it on an upward trajectory to where it is today. While the TV spots that were produced are ‘of their time’ when compared to today’s high-tech, maxi-cut, composited fibre-optic camera footage, they were ground-breaking at the time. Production crews were tasked with constructing elaborate and complex on-car rigs to attach multiple high-speed cameras, including one mounted directly above the driver pointing down into the cockpit, and a couple around the exhaust pipes.
In-cockpit cameras captured gear changes, footwell pedal action and the driver’s view. The cameras, up to five at a time, were all remotely operated to achieve several viewpoints of one particular aspect of a racing hero at work.
‘Philip Morris, mindful of the value of its global trademark brand, always expected the world’s best in terms of production. It wasn't a case of anyone will do. Before this particular production, Tony Scott of Top Gun and Days of Thunder was hired to direct a specific F1 commercial for Leo Burnett which was screened exclusively in France. Another brilliant director, Alan Van Rijn, from the same ecurie with a passionate involvement in motorsport, saw the chance to do things in the later Senna productions that, in terms of imagery, had never been done before.
‘A huge amount of money was made available to produce the three commercials that were decided upon. It took months to pull together, multiple locations – Imola, Jerez, live events, closed events, McLaren test days, studio sets etc. Plus very specific music composition, 'musically enhanced' sound effects, editing, mixing, finishing… everything had to be perfect, cutting edge. 'Hogie' and the PMI world got very excited by it all.’
For the many still shots used for press and outdoor promotion, Bob hired several of the world’s top motorsport photographers. Each photographer brought their own style, and technique in shooting their interpretation of each race and conditions. The campaign ran, where appropriate, for a short number of years before the ever-tightening (fully justifiable) pressure from legislators meant it had run its course.
Highly significant corporate social and moral responsibility issues aside, from a marketing point of view, the project was a huge tactical success.
Public engaged and informed; drivers and teams immortalised. And all without a cowboy in sight.
We would like to thank Bob Kedward for telling us this fascinating and important story, and for providing the illustrations.
Disclaimer: This article is intended to be of historical interest only. Porter Press International does not endorse smoking, Philip Morris International, or any other tobacco-related company or product.