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Turkey: tobacco's hard drive for ban-busting F1

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In Turkey, a major national obsession is football—that's soccer, not the American game that keeps teams of orthopaedic specialists in business. But in what seems to be the most desperate attempt to date by the tobacco industry to get round Turkey's 1996 tobacco control law, which includes a total ban on all forms of tobacco promotion, Turkey has recently been subjected to an increasing crescendo of publicity for Formula 1 motor racing. This seems to stem from a highly organised campaign, one of whose aims is to get a Formula 1 grand prix race established in Turkey, and bears the almost unmistakable fingerprints of the tobacco industry.

The Istanbul branch of Tommy Hilfiger prominently displayed Marlboro F1 clothing and pictures (left), until replaced (right) after the Turkish committee on smoking and health threatened legal action.

In a country which to date has shown not the slightest interest in motor racing, health advocates have monitored an extraordinary crop of publicity giving Formula 1 an entirely new and prominent public profile. Magazine articles and radio and television programmes have featured it, and sports programmes that previously ignored its results have now begun to report them. Products not routinely associated with motor racing have begun to bear references to it in their advertisements. For example, the copy of an ad for domestic cleaning products begins by reminding the consumers how “even a tiny dust particle may have an unbelievable effect at a speed of 250 miles per hour.” This means that the surfaces of a Formula 1 workshop must be so clean, you could eat off them, the ad helpfully goes on to explain. Teeshirts emblazoned with F1 sponsors' names appeared, a Benetton minibus developed a sign trumpeting Benetton's sponsorship of Formula 1, and the Mobil brand of petrol (gasoline) suddenly added the suffix “-1” to its name.

Perhaps strangest of all, in May, the Istanbul branch of Tommy Hilfiger, the international men's leisurewear chain, sprouted a vivid display of bright red F1 outfits. For a country without F1, it seems decidedly risky to market the clothes you wear when working in the pits at F1 races, or when driving the cars (photographs of a Marlboro driver in his cockpit, and other trackside scenes, were there to set the clothes in context). In early June, the Turkish committee on smoking and health warned the manager of the shop that he was breaking the law, and threatened legal action. Within days the display was replaced by the usual sort of merchandise found in its other branches around the world, and the F1 teeshirts previously on sale disappeared.

Why has all this been happening? The most obvious scenario is that Western tobacco companies have reviewed the options for breaking the tobacco legislation, rated government ministries according to perceived susceptibility to persuasion that F1 will bring economic and political gains, and concluded that F1 is the track to go down. Next step would be to hire a public relations firm, preferably one with similar campaign trophies in its display case, together with marketing and advertising companies to think up and execute ways to get F1 exposure and keep the cigarette associations ticking over until the race gets properly under way. Then, fill up the tanks with a lot of premium grade dollars, and off down the track until Turkey gets its race, opening up the plethora of media opportunities for giving cigarette brands the fastest, sexiest associations of all.

To resist this campaign, the government will need to prove unusually far-sighted and strong. Encouragingly, so far health has managed to hold out, but the social democrat/nationalist coalition has given every sign of taking the deregulation, privatisation route that so favours tobacco companies. Whether they like it or not, Turkish people may have to become familiar with Formula 1, so their children can continue to be lured down the road to smoking by the pushers in the pits.