Social Marketers in the Driver's Seat:
Motorsport Sponsorship as a Vehicle for Tobacco Prevention


Nedra Kline Weinreich, MS, Janet Abbott, BS, and Cheryl K. Olson, MPH, SD

Presented at the Innovations in Social Marketing Conference, July 20, 1999, Montreal, Canada


Since the passage of California's Tobacco Tax Health Protection Act of 1988 (Proposition 99), the California Department of Health Services (CDHS) has funded dozens of local and regional projects to counteract pro-tobacco influences. Among the most innovative is Tobacco*Free Challenge Racing (TFCR), which has sponsored race cars and educated about tobacco at racetracks, schools and events in Northern California since 1991.

Auto racing typically draws its fans from blue-collar workers and minority groups, who have higher rates of smoking, as well as low-income youth who idolize race car drivers. This audience also has less exposure to smoking prevention and cessation messages from health professionals, worksite programs and schools.

Sponsorship in the Marketing Mix

Over the past decade, sponsorship has been the fastest growing form of marketing, with over $6.8 billion spent on sponsorship in 1998 (International Events Group, 1998). Sponsorship has been defined as (Pope, 1998):

The provision of resources (e.g., money, people, equipment) by an organization (the sponsor) directly to an individual, authority or body (the sponsee), to enable the latter to pursue some activity in return for benefits contemplated in terms of the sponsor's promotion strategy, and which can be expressed in terms of corporate, marketing, or media objectives.

Three categories of sponsorship objectives have been identified by Sandler and Shani (1993), including: 1) broad corporate objectives (image based), 2) marketing objectives (brand promotion, sales increase), and 3) media objectives (cost effectiveness, reaching target markets). The ability to specifically target markets is also an important function of sponsorship (Jensen, 1994).

The benefits of sponsorship most often cited are awareness and image building of the brand, product, and company (Cornwell, 1995). Among other benefits are that sponsorship can improve the impact and memorability of the marketing message, enhance the relevance of the brand to the target market, generate the desire to purchase the brand to "reward" the sponsor and heighten the loyalty of those working for and with the company (Kate, 1995).

Sponsorships allow companies to distinguish themselves from the vast field of competitors prevalent in other forms of advertising (Oneal, Finch, Hamilton & Hammonds, 1987). Advertisers also find they can get more "bang for their buck" by sponsoring an event itself rather than paying for 30 seconds of ad time during the event.

The extent to which sponsorship imparts a feeling of goodwill toward the company depends in part on the nature of the event. According to a survey by John Hancock Financial Services, local events made the respondents think more favorably of the sponsors than national events. Sports events are considered most appealing, with cultural events far behind (Kate, 1995).

Sponsorship has a long-term effect, based on accumulated biases over time. The residual effect of sponsorship may last for many years, instilling a predisposition in people to buy the product (Kate, 1995). The benefits of advertising or displaying signage at sporting events accrue as the brand becomes associated with a sport, and the association in people's minds often continues even after the sponsorship ends. Multiple advertising and signage locations at a particular event (three or four) are optimal for higher recall and recognition of sponsors, particularly for televised sport stadium situations (Pope & Voges, 1997).

The success of sponsorship programs may be difficult to fully assess. They are often evaluated by measuring impact in three ways (IEG, 1998):
1) Measuring awareness or attitude changes
2) Quantifying the effects in terms of sales results; and
3) Comparing the value of sponsorship-generated media coverage to the cost of equivalent advertising space or time.

Awareness or attitude changes are usually assessed using surveys, but changes in the image of a product or brand are not always quantifiable. The sales impact can be more readily tracked through sponsorship-specific promotions, such as coupons and special offers tied directly to an event. The amount of media exposure and equivalent cost of advertising is also fairly easy to measure (Kate, 1995).

Motorsport Sponsorship by Tobacco Companies

TFCR was created in response to rampant tobacco advertising and promotion in motorsports on the national and local level. Auto racing, the number two spectator sport in the United States, attracts a large share of tobacco industry dollars poured into sports promotion, sponsorship and advertising. Attendance at National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) events climbed 60% from 1991 to 1996 and continues to increase in popularity (Oliver, 1996).

Within the automobile racing industry alone, tobacco companies spend about $300 million each year (Vlasic, 1997). Cigarette manufacturers claim that the two reasons they use sports sponsorship in their marketing are to reinforce brand loyalty and to switch brand loyalty. However, other more likely reasons are that: (1) Cigarette marketers seek to connect their products in the mind of the consumer with the healthy lifestyle associated with sports; (2) Many sport participants and spectators are risk and adventure seekers, characteristics common to tobacco users, and (3) Sporting events are an enjoyable occasion, and the tobacco industry seeks to associate their products with the consumers' feelings of enjoyment during the event (Duffy, 1996).

Tobacco companies spend over 90% of their sport sponsorship budgets on motorsports, with good reason (Turco, 1999). Auto racing fans tend to be the most loyal to the sport's sponsors of all types of sports. One survey of NASCAR fans found that nearly three-fourths almost always or frequently chose a product involved in NASCAR over one that is not, simply because of the sponsorship. In comparison, only 52% of professional tennis enthusiasts and 47% of PGA golf fans chose products because of sponsorships. And almost 60% indicated that they had a higher trust in products offered by NASCAR sponsors, as compared to 30% for NFL sponsors, 16% for Olympic sponsors and 5% for World Cup soccer sponsors (Performance Research, 1994).

Auto racing is often a family-centered event. Children are a large part of the auto racing audience, both in attendance and television viewership. Youth aged 12 to 17 are almost 14% of those who attended NASCAR races in 1996 and over 18% of those who attended sport car racing events (but are only 11% of the total 12+ population). Also, over a quarter of 12- to 17-year-olds watched auto racing on television in 1996, accounting for over 70 million viewers of motorsports television programs where tobacco company messages were prominent (Center for Tobacco-Free Kids, 1997). With tobacco industry sponsorships of racing events, teams and drivers by brands such as Winston, Camel, Marlboro, Kool, Copenhagen, Skoal and Kodiak, children as well as adults are bombarded by pro-tobacco messages whenever they watch auto racing.

Program Description

The Tobacco*Free Challenge Racing project seeks to change social norms relating to tobacco among racetrack audiences, countering the prominent messages from the tobacco industry at racing events. TFCR sponsors a winning race car team to ensure that being tobacco-free is associated with being a winner. By providing role models, promoting consistent communications regarding non-use of tobacco and creating an environment that reduces exposure to environmental tobacco smoke, TFCR markets its message from many different angles.

The TFCR target audiences are families with household incomes below $35,000 and people who are likely not to have completed high school. The project also made special efforts to reach blue collar families, youth, African-American and Hispanic families. This matches very well with the demographics of those who attend auto racing, and particularly stock car racing. The typical stock car racing fan is a 40-year-old married male who makes less than $40,000, works in a blue collar job and has no more than a high school diploma (SpeedSouth Motorsports Marketing, 1999). In addition, race track fans are 30% more likely to smoke than the average Californian (Tobacco-Free Challenge Project, 1992). At local community motorsport events, the audience is comprised mostly of families.

The primary site for TFCR is Petaluma Fairgrounds Speedway, a 3/8-mile dirt oval typical of regional racetracks. Petaluma is a town of 43,000, about an hour north of San Francisco. Typically, there are 33 races per season (spring to fall) at the Speedway, each attended by roughly 5,000 people, including drivers and pit crew. This track was chosen for the most intensive intervention in part because of support from its owner, a former smoker who has emphysema.

The Tobacco*Free Challenge Project began in 1991, when a member of the Bay Area Cancer Coalition (BACC) noted the extensive tobacco industry sponsorship of motorsports while watching a televised race. She brought the idea of tobacco-free motorsport sponsorship to local health officials and the coalition membership. They initially needed some convincing that "this race car thing" was a valid idea and had great potential to reach youth and smokers who had limited exposure to smoking prevention and cessation messages through traditional channels. BACC decided to submit a proposal for funding, which was accepted by the California Department of Health Services.

TFCR held a name and logo contest to kick off the project and involve the racing fans. Winners were announced at the Petaluma Raceway to generate additional exposure for the project. TFCR also worked with the management at Petaluma to create a tobacco-free section in the stands so that fans could physically show their support for the message; the section is nearly always full. The project complemented its work at the track with flier distribution at sporting and entertainment events, interactive displays at county fairs and at Hispanic and African-American-oriented events such as Cinco de Mayo and Juneteenth.

In 1997, ten Tobacco*Free Challenge cars raced at eight different tracks throughout Northern California. Several drivers represented target audience groups, including one Chinese-American, two African-Americans, a Native American, and a 14-year-old girl who drove in special youth events. In addition to racing, TFCR cars and drivers appear at schools, fairs, and ethnic and youth events to promote non-use of tobacco as an acceptable alternative. TFCR cars have won racing championships seven years in a row.

Along with logos on race cars, the TFCR message was reinforced through track announcements, a track billboard, targeted television advertisements, articles in racing papers and newspapers, souvenir programs, giveaways and frequent fan contact with drivers. Promotional items with the TFCR name and logo were developed as incentives for survey completion and to build identification with the project; these included items such as seat cushions, insulated drink holders, visors, t-shirts, bumper stickers that drivers could autograph, instant photos of kids with the TFCR car and driver, stopwatches and tote bags. TFCR also hosted a special event at the Speedway for World No-Tobacco Day; track management admitted children free when accompanied by an adult.

In addition to promoting behavior change through communications, TFCR actively works to create a smoke-free environment in the grandstands for those who wish to avoid exposure to environmental tobacco smoke. Besides Petaluma, five other speedways now have "no smoking" sections as a result of TFCR's efforts.
TFCR sponsorship is flexible and result-driven. The TFCR grant subcontracts with the main driver, who also serves as a spokesperson, media liaison and team coordinator. He fields a team of TFCR drivers, representing specific target audience groups in various race car classes at different tracks.

In the 1998-2000 racing seasons, TFCR will be represented in a minimum of six racing classes, in 150 to 180 races at eight to 12 different venues. In addition, several of the drivers serve as spokespersons and role models at 26 to 30 community appearances, such as school assemblies and community events.
Each TFCR driver owns his own car and assumes track liability and insurance. TFCR, through the subcontractor, provides the TFCR logo decal and nominal payment, such as entry fees. The main driver, who races in three classes, and four other drivers are sponsored for an entire racing season. Each has been a proven winner, consistently placing first or second. All other TFCR drivers are sponsored on a race-by-race basis, providing a heightened incentive to win. By winning, TFCR receives more program exposure and greater audience reach - at the track, in the motorsport press and in the general press.


California's tobacco control programs are meant to have a cumulative effect; the influence of a single program is difficult to tease out. TFCR conducted written surveys of fans at the start and end of each season since 1992, supplemented by interviews with drivers.

Because of the chaotic nature of sporting event crowds, achieving a random sample was a challenge. TFCR set up a table near the main entrance to the Petaluma Speedway at the opening of business. Over the next two hours, as paying fans entered, a TFCR representative asked them to answer a survey in exchange for a free TFCR promotional item (e.g., seat cushions, binoculars, stopwatches) that could be used that day. Experience over several years suggests that both smokers and non-smokers readily accept such items, and use them over and over. By "eyeball estimate," one-half to three-quarters of fans entering the main gate completed a survey. Some nonresponders were hurrying to get good seats; comparability to responders is unknown.

Each survey gathered information from fans about their favorite class of racing; previous attendance at Petaluma Speedway; awareness of TFCR; tobacco use behavior, attitudes, and perceived norms of use; attitude toward tobacco sponsorship of racing; awareness of and attitude toward a track no-smoking section; and age group.

The 1997 surveys (N=339 pre-test, N=347 post-test) found that the majority of respondents had been to Petaluma Speedway before. Among these previous attendees, there was higher recall of TFCR cars (57.9% beginning of season vs. 67.4% end of season) and drivers (36.0% beginning of season vs. 47.4% end of season) choosing only correct names at the end of the season. Many season-end respondents recalled TFCR publicity materials, including a track billboard (39.9%), an article in a racing paper (25.7%) or newspaper (12.5%), public address announcements (30.5%) and souvenir programs (20.3%).

Strikingly, when children ages 7-12 were asked how many race car drivers use tobacco, 41% thought that very few did - a large increase from the 24% in the initial survey. There was also a general increase among all respondents in dislike of tobacco sponsorship of racing (34.4% vs. 40.1%), "hating" to sit next to smokers (41.8% vs. 53.4%) and awareness of the track's no-smoking section (10.1% vs. 48.2%). While it is impossible to know whether persons surveyed were truly representative, trends in responses were encouraging.

Focus groups with drivers also found widespread support for TFCR, including willingness to help promote the program (e.g., by handing out TFCR items to children or putting a logo sticker on their cars). Drivers felt smoking by their peers had gone down, perhaps influenced by the presence of TFCR, but that a high proportion of pit crew members still smoked or chewed. A survey conducted a year later found that 70% of drivers and pit crew support the project, with only 2% against it.

Surveys conducted in 1998 at Petaluma showed continuing positive trends, but a leveling-off in awareness of TFCR and related attitudes may indicate audience saturation for the message. The project established a new presence at the Antioch Speedway in 1998, with encouraging results so far.

Lessons Learned

Over the eight years that Tobacco*Free Challenge Racing has been operating, the staff has fine-tuned the program based on feedback from the target audience, drivers and other participants. Some of the lessons learned from this experience include:

Enlisting the help of someone who can serve as a key informant - familiar with the sport, venues and competitors - is critical to the success of the project.
TFCR's subcontractor has been a motorsport executive for over 20 years and knows most of the drivers racing in the area well; he was able to put together a diverse team of tobacco-free role models with the potential to win most of the time. He also knows the key motorsports press people and works with them to bring ongoing publicity to the program.

Provide incentives to the sponsored individual or team to win.
The key to making a program like this work is to generate enthusiasm for the project and commitment among all partners involved - the staff, drivers and funder. Making the prospect of sponsorship for each race contingent upon consistent wins serves as a powerful incentive for the TFCR drivers. Each win builds project morale as well as exposure for the connection between the tobacco-free message and winners. Many drivers have asked to become part of the TFCR team after they quit smoking.

Be creative and flexible in your research methods.
Because TFCR was targeting the same population that the tobacco companies had been trying to reach, it was able to "piggyback" on the tobacco companies' market research. After tracking where they were investing their advertising dollars, TFCR directed its efforts to the same locations. As another example, in surveying the fans at various venues, the program found that it had to modify its questionnaire to take into account attendees who spoke only Spanish and those whose literacy levels were below the reading level of the original survey instrument.

Know your audience and go to where they are.
The importance of knowing the audience and the type of races it attends became clear during the two years TFCR raced within the Sportscar Club of America (SCCA) season. The SCCA races, which use higher-end cars, tend to attract a different audience - one with higher educational and income levels, as well as lower rates of tobacco use. TFCR found that the Petaluma Raceway was much more effective in reaching the blue-collar audience and discontinued its SCCA sponsorship.

Be clear in your publicity about how the sponsorship program operates.
At the beginning, public misperceptions that the project was buying race cars with tax dollars had to be overcome by educating people about how the sponsorship program worked. Tobacco*Free Challenge Racing came under attack in 1993 by a "smokers' rights" group as a misuse of Proposition 99 funds. CDHS and TFCR's supporters rightly viewed those charges as a sign of the project's success.

Extend your budget by seeking pro bono services and in kind donations from related businesses, as well as finding solutions to funding obstacles.
A motorsports sponsorship program is not difficult or expensive to run if the staff includes racing and marketing professionals, and can leverage its funds by using pro bono assistance from businesses such as oil distributors, auto garages or media outlets. TFCR funding was cut drastically during 1993-94 following a political battle over how best to use tobacco tax revenues. TFCR's project director was forced into part-time status; its primary driver and racing advisor supplemented grant monies with his personal funds to keep the project alive. Funding was restored in 1995, after legislation redirected Proposition 99 money to its mandated uses.

Do not spread project resources too thin too quickly.
Rather than expanding the program to another track after its first successful year at Petaluma, TFCR continued to concentrate its effort for five years to maximize its impact. Although TFCR now also has established a presence at Antioch Raceway, the project continues at Petaluma to maintain the gains it has made. It takes time and consistent reinforcement for social norms to change. Although many race fans were somewhat antagonistic toward the project in its first year, the tenor of comments gradually changed to acceptance and even support for its presence.

TFCR has compiled a step-by-step "how-to" manual, including sample subcontracts and budgets. The project is now also seeking funding to expand the TFCR program nationally by providing technical assistance to other organizations that are interested in motorsports sponsorship.


The success of the Tobacco*Free Challenge Racing project, along with the relevant literature, suggests that sponsorship can be used successfully as part of the social marketing mix to promote health or social behaviors. Although TFCR focuses on auto racing, many other opportunities exist for sponsorship: sports teams, athletes and sporting events; festivals, concerts and other community events; the arts and other causes. Social marketers should certainly consider adding sponsorship to their promotional activities if it fits within their strategy and budget.

Sponsorship's potential for creating a long-term positive effect meshes well with the needs of many social marketing programs working on problems that require behaviors to be sustained over a long period of time. Initiating a relationship that reaps continued positive associations for the organization and its message for a sustained period after the sponsorship has ended may be quite cost-effective - an important benefit for most social marketers.

Another important aspect of sponsorship is the level of loyalty that many enthusiasts pledge to sponsors of their favorite athletes, teams or sports. Auto racing is the best example of fans taking the sponsors' messages to heart, but other sports or events may also create a substantial level of attachment for certain types of people. When many social marketing issues require an emotional - not just rational - response from someone to adopt a behavior, the benefit of having the target audience positively disposed to the message because of a desire to support a sponsor is unmistakable.

Nonprofit or governmental organizations engaging in sponsorship activities have the added advantage of having their participation stand out from the clutter of corporate sponsors. By putting a health or social message in a place where its presence is unexpected, the target audience is more likely to notice it. Simply being a sponsor can become a newsworthy event, if cast the right way, and can generate word of mouth publicity. The effect may be much greater than that of running an advertisement during a televised event.

Sponsorship of an entity or event may be somewhat different for social marketers in that simply showing the name of the organization as the sponsor is probably not sufficient for making an impact. When commercial marketers use a company or brand name as their sponsorship advertising, the target audience is generally able to identify the product (or type of product) fairly easily. However, using the name of the health department or nonprofit organization does not usually conjure up a specific enough idea of what the "product" might be. Had TFCR called its car the "Bay Area Cancer Coalition" race car, it might not have presented its tobacco-free message as effectively.

The sponsorship name or message should be couched in positive terms to create favorable associations. Thus, the name "Tobacco*Free Challenge" was chosen rather than something like "No Smoking" or "Stop Cancer." A program with the goal of reducing heart disease might likewise use a name like "the Heart Healthy Team" instead of "Down with Cholesterol." Organizations with recognizable names that convey the intended positive message can certainly use their own name as sponsor if desired.

The sponsoring organization should try to match the issue and target audience characteristics to the appropriate event or sport. There should be a logical reason for the choice of sponsee that furthers the social marketing strategy. For example, an organization such as the American Heart Association could sponsor a marathon, or a breast cancer education project could sponsor women's tennis. An illogical choice would be a project to prevent teen pregnancies sponsoring a golf tournament - neither the issue nor the target audience fit the event to be sponsored.

The literature suggests that certain types of sponsorships are more likely to be effective. Overall, sponsorship of local events is looked on more favorably than national events and sports events are most appealing. However, this could vary depending upon the specific target audience. Programs should consider any event that attracts their audiences, whether it is a once a year occasion or an ongoing event or sport season. In any sponsorship situation, multiple advertising and signage locations at a particular event are desirable for increasing the audience's recall of the organization's participation. Social marketers must evaluate the effectiveness of the sponsorship in raising awareness of their issue and changing behavior to the same extent that commercial sponsors do.

Just as sponsorship is not a magic bullet in the commercial marketer's arsenal, there are limits to its effectiveness when used in social marketing. As with any promotional activity, a sponsorship should be part of a larger marketing mix strategy. Although race car sponsorship is the focus of the Tobacco*Free Challenge Racing project, it is supplemented by other educational activities that occur beyond the track and is just one piece of all the tobacco control activities happening in the Bay Area. A sponsorship occurring in the absence of other strategies to advance an issue will probably not do more than build awareness.

Another limitation is that every issue does not lend itself to sponsorship. If a program is not able to find a compatible sport or event to use to reach the target audience, sponsorship does not make sense as part of the social marketing mix. Trying to force a connection may backfire; a campaign to promote organ donation that sponsors motorcycle racing may be considered insensitive (motorcycle riders are often referred to as "organ donors"). There may just not be a sponsorable event that would reach the target audience.

Finally, finding funding for the sponsorships may be an issue for social marketers. Funders may not be willing to give money that goes to for-profit ventures or is seen as an inappropriate use of public funds, despite the potential for reaching the target audience. In addition, the cost of many types of sponsorships may simply be prohibitive for some organizations. In this case, sponsorship does not need to be ruled out completely, but smaller-scale alternatives may be considered.

The traditional role of organizations creating social marketing programs has been to seek funding from any source they can find - whether in the form of government grants, foundation monies or corporate sponsorships. By using sponsorships as a vehicle for their messages, social marketers can take the driver's seat and provide funding to others while effectively reaching their target audience.

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Weinreich Communications 2006