In Marketing Sportivo, Sponsorizzazioni Sportive

A few days ago, MotoGP and Formula 1 inaugurated their respective seasons from the night sands of the Middle East.

Bathed in spotlights and neon lights and kissed by desert sands, the tracks of Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were the stage for two Championships that are changing skins as they try to change souls. Or rather, that have changed skin while changing soul. To the most attentive and faithful viewer, this primarily visual metamorphosis of the two competitions cannot have escaped notice.

Increasingly cinematic and stunning, the circuits on which the world’s fastest two- and four-wheelers race are now a kaleidoscope of phosphorescent colors, darting lights, colorful escape routes, and breathtaking LED play. Between palm trees, yachts, mammoth hotels, and luminous fountains, it is hard to tell where film, video game, and entertainment begin and end.

Helmets, liveries, uniforms, elements and components have increasingly saturated colors, bolder strokes, more defined backgrounds. Shades, inlays, and details give way to large spots of color at the edge of the bright spectrum, such as the green of the new Sauber or the vibrant yellow of the new Ducati VR46. At the same time, manufacturers and manufacturers are playing with materials and paints, seeking solutions between the total matte of Red Bull and the Daft Punk-like iridescence of Lewis Hamilton‘s helmets.

Interactive graphics, data-on-screen, animations, motion graphics and more offer the viewer an experience and amount of information unimaginable until a few years ago

Motorsport: Seeing is believing

The sensory aspect of motorsport, often overlooked, is a key component of its success and popularity. If not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to watch the races live -and thus lose some of the auditory component on which big producers like Dorna are already working with futuristic and super sensitive microphones-the great visual impact of the top series as Formula 1, MotoGP, Formula E, Nascar and WEC is a foundational part of the appeal, attraction and marketability of these series.

In essence, these sports are so effective on audiences and brands partly because they are so beautiful to look at, because their representational imagery, their plastic appearance is so powerful.

This is an interesting topic primarily for marketing, which has in the perceptual aspect and the emotional component some of the strongest areas of activation. How much, in short, does visual attractiveness, sensory weight-and ultimately beauty-weigh in the choices we make, the decisions we choose to make, and the long-awaited -by marketers- changes in behavior?

To answer this question, let’s take a step back. What is so fascinating, magnetic, about the image of a supercar, or a sports motorcycle? And, trivially, why is there a huddle of people around every Lamborghini, Ferrari, Pagani parked along the road? The trite but natural answer is that these vehicles are beautiful as well as rare. Now, as even a child knows, “beautiful” is a word that means everything and nothing: the concept of beautiful is difficult to argue, lacking in contours and certainly not helpful in analysis, as is the old adage that wants beauty in the eye of the beholder.

Helping us more instead is a theory that essayist Roland Barthes, well known to visual language scholars around the world, developed in 1980 in his text “Camera Lucida.” Barthes says, among other things, that whenever we look at something-in his essay, a photograph-there are two aspects that work in synergy: the studium and the punctum.

The studium is the rational, lucid, physical aspect of the image, the one that in short tells us that that is a vehicle of that model and make, that has this color and with these characteristics. The punctum is that which involves us in an image, a particular sign that acts on us and bears the impression of being wounded somewhere in the soul. Barthes is unable to explain to us what punctum is, except through a nuance of definition: it is something sudden, random and private.

Adjusting Barthes’ theory to our own sphere, it is not entirely off to say that motorsport, especially very high-end motorsport, contains for fans a hard-to-explain but undeniable punctum. In short, and as all fans know, a Formula 1 car even when parked in a garage possesses a cathartic magnetism. Just as in the same way a racetrack, though empty and silent, carries within it the swirling power of racing.

abu dhabi GP F1

Visual strength and success

Entering programming in March 2019, at the height of the COVID epidemic, Drive to Survive is one of the most popular sports-themed television series in television history. Bolstered by this success and confident that they could replicate the product’s fortunes, producers James Gay Rees and Paul Martin, approached Netflix about producing a series on the world of Tennis, titled Break Point. The concept behind Break Point is not unlike the successful Drive to Survive: to give viewers exclusive, top-quality access to the behind-the-scenes, behind-the-match, and many details of the spectacular world of racquetball.

Unfortunately for Rees and Martin, Break Point is canceled after two seasons, with Netflix blaming extremely low ratings and nonexistent viewer loyalty. While the failure is partly to be found in the absence of some superstars and some trademark errors in the narrative, many point to the fact that tennis, unlike Formula 1 is not visually engaging.

In the words of the popular Slate magazine review, “Once we get to the actual playing of the matches, something goes haywire. Break point feels almost afraid to show us what the sport is about. […] For the most part, it instead relies on close-ups of player striking the ball, as majestic as they are repetitive.”.

Instead, the little game succeeds very well in Drive to Survive, which even at times when the script is uninspired or blatantly fictional can leverage a plastic and visual compartment of the highest order. The glittering grid line-up at the Monaco Grand Prix, Verstappen’s silhouette standing on the nose of his Red Bull in the triumph of the night ripped apart by flashes, the breathtaking curves of Spa plunging into the woods are communication assets that very few sports can rely on. And of extraordinary power.

Ruling the gaze, striking the heart

This is not the first time that major sports properties have sought to understand, direct, manipulate, enhance and ultimately exploit the innate visual power of sports.

As early as the mid-1980s the NBA, the professional league of American basketball, instructs Andrew Bernstein, a photographer and contemporary art scholar from Pasadena’s Art College of Design, to make the game look “cooler” for those who watch it in attendance, on live television or for those who peruse its photos in magazines. Bernstein would create numerous techniques, tools and theories on sports communication for the NBA that are still applied today, and he would refine the concept of all-access sports reporting once and for all.

Formula 1, MotoGP, WEC and the other major motorsport series today are no different. The extraordinary economic, creative and technological investment put into making the show more engaging, the image more exciting, the setting more engaging is absolutely manifest.

Undoubtedly, the need for spectacularization also arises from an extra-industry competition that the whole world of sports experiences with the entertainment arena, and which is moving by leaps and bounds in the direction of involvement, sensory load, and the number and power of stimuli to which users are subjected.

However, and perhaps more importantly, the governing bodies of sports know that, to use another expression dear to the marketing world, “you buy with your eyes,” and they are doing everything they can to make every second, every frame, every piece of content more and more memorable. The stronger an emotion is, the more the senses are stirred, the more ardent the perception that comes to us from an experience, the stronger the impression that will be created in the mind and the connection with brands, brands and the whole subtext. In this, and for structural reasons, motorsport is showing potential unknown to almost any other discipline, with very few exceptions.


To infinity and beyond

Qiddiya City, the pharaonic megaproject development under construction on the edge of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia will host a new Grand Prix from 2027. Images from renders and simulations return the spectacular image of a strip of asphalt winding through fireworks, bright LEDs and-above all-the world’s tallest parabolic dish, “the Blade,” more than twenty stories high. As someone had occasion to point out, it is something more like a 1:1 scale version of Mario Kart than a car track.

While sponsors profit from this visual and sensory boom provided by top racing series, it is also true that their creative departments find fertile ground to contribute to the spectacle with increasingly spectacular innovations and activations. One only has to think of the role Red Bull has played on the way Formula 1 is seen now, with single-seaters whizzing through historic town centers or on snowy slopes, or motorcycles invading Millennium Bridge, to understand how much this intermingling is double-edged and inseparable.

The question that needs to be asked, at this point, can only be one: to what extent is this visual gluttony, this invasion of the senses, prodromal to the construction of an excellent sporting spectacle and when, instead, does it become an exercise in style for its own sake, manneristic and cumbersome? While it is true that a great set design embellishes the show and gives luster to the actors, it is also true that this cannot cover and obscure the plot of the piece, or come before the lead performance.

It’s a theme that motorsport manufacturers and organizers need to start asking themselves, as calendars fill up with video-game stages, breathtaking scenery and gleaming vehicles. In the meantime, however, sponsors and partners can rejoice in this exciting feast for the eyes, secure in the knowledge that every second of this lush spectacle does good things for their brands and spectators’ memories of them.

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Emanuele Venturoli
Emanuele Venturoli
A graduate in Public, Social and Political Communication from the University of Bologna, he has always been passionate about marketing, design and sport.
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