Barcode Battlers

Greetings, F1 Colours readers! I know we’ve entered the typical “livery launches out of the way, season started” lull that this site has, but seeing as sponsorship and liveries have – in a rare move – made it into F1 news lately, I really couldn’t sit back and comment as about the only blog dedicated to the subject. So here’s my take on this whole “the Ferrari barcodes have nothing to do with Marlboro” nonsense.

In case you’ve missed it, the basic gist is this – UK newspaper The Times recently ran a report on something that those of us who’ve followed F1 since the late ’90s or earlier have known for years: that the “barcode” pattern on Ferrari’s cars is a cunning way of masking the fact that they still receive sponsorship money from Marlboro, despite the fact that tobacco advertising in F1 was outlawed entirely in 2007. Laughably, Ferrari – sorry, “Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro”, to give them their full, officially-registered title – president Luca di Montezelmolo has since claimed that:

It is verging on the ridiculous to claim that the colour red or a graphic design which shows a barcode could induce people to smoke.

While an official statement from Ferrari claimed that:

The bar code is part of the livery of the car, it is not part of a subliminal advertising campaign.

All of this shows remarkably short memories on the part of Ferrari personnel. So in order to explain why people might possibly think that a red and white and black bar code logo has anything to do with Marlboro, let’s give them a bit of a history lesson…

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Back in 1997, Marlboro first became title sponsors of Ferrari – in the process, changing the shade of red on their car to something closer to their own corporate orangey shade. It looked like the above. As with many teams that had tobacco advertising at this point (as Ferrari themselves had had for many years previously with Marlboro as non-title sponsor), certain races – notably Britain, France and Germany, but with others to follow – banned tobacco advertising at the track. This necessitated a “substitute” logo in the space that the sponsoring company had paid for – something that still served as a trigger for the company’s image, but didn’t outright say it. Williams had “Racing” (and, in ’97, “R.?”) in place of Rothmans, Jordan famously used “Bitten and Hisses” (and later “Buzzin Hornets” before finally “Be On Edge”) for Benson & Hedges, and so on. In replacing Marlboro, Ferrari generally tended to use a series of black blocks in place of the letters, and changed the chevron of the Marlboro logo to a simple red block. This was a strategy they’d also used previously (as had, on occasion, former Marlboro-sponsored team McLaren – although they would also sometimes just substitute the team name), and tended to look like this:

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(although you’ll note that in the above picture, they’ve got away with keeping the chevron – they wouldn’t always manage this, though)

As the 2000s drew in, and a growing number of races banned tobacco advertising, Ferrari relied increasingly on the subliminal link drawn between the paint scheme on their car, and a packet of cigarettes. Sometimes they’d simply replace the lettering with white space, but it would still be clear enough exactly what it was supposed to say:

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Come 2007, tobacco advertising in F1 was finally banned for good. Only three tobacco companies remained in the sport prior this point – Lucky Strike (whose parent company British American Tobacco had, in preparation for the ban, already sold the team to Honda), Mild Seven (departing Renault at the end of the year) and Marlboro. While the previous two left as expected at the beginning of 2007, Ferrari continued to be known officially as Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro. Their 2007 car was the first to introduce what’s now known as the “barcode” pattern:

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Which has persisted for the last few seasons, although you’ll note that although it was a simple white pattern on red when introduced, it changed into something significantly more reminiscent of a Marlboro logo as of 2009:

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Ferrari’s argument is clear. The logo was significantly changed upon Marlboro’s official “departure” in 2007, and the new pattern is simply something they’ve chosen to emblazon on the car in the absence of a replacement title sponsor (although it wasn’t until Santander this year that another name was allowed to appear on the prime front-of-the-rear-wing slot). They can even justify the addition of black into the mix as of 2009 (otherwise a clear shift towards flashing “Marlboro” into people’s minds) by pointing out that black has been the colour of their typeface logo for a while now (and besides, pre-1998 Ferraris often featured black front and rear wings). It’s clear that none of this is actually true, of course, but it does stand up to scrutiny – you can’t definitively argue their intentions are anything other than they bare-facedly state.

Well, except for what happened in 2007.

Because at non-televised practice for the 2007 Monaco Grand Prix, and then again during the Chinese Grand Prix proper, the Ferraris looked like this :

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Compare this version of the car with the one seen at launch and races and it’s clear – the Marlboro lettering appears in exactly the same place, to the same scale, as the “barcode”. In other words, the barcode is a substitute for the Marlboro logo. Otherwise, why was it put on the cars in such a way for these particular sessions?

I’m sure Ferrari already have a carefully-prepared argument against this point – but although this has been going on for three-and-a-bit years now, The Times’ article is the first time the practice has come under proper scrutiny, and maybe – just maybe – they might yet be proven to have been too smart for their own good…


    Peter Tabmow

    May 5, 2010 at 12:46 am


    I made a couple of contributions to the debate on this topic on Joe Saward’s excellent blog ( as follows:

    As a trained graphic designer, I can tell you that the execution of ‘subliminal’ advertising is far from subjective. And we all know that whilst tobacco companies have long been up to no good (targeting children, complicit in smuggling, etc), they are far from stupid. Indeed, they are very sharp and effective marketers. You can be sure that the ‘bar code’ designs seen on the Ferraris since the ban have been provided by Philip Morris and rigourously developed and tested for viewing (a) in motion, (b) at a distance, and (c) for brief exposure times. As the Kitchen Cynic pointed out, a more appropriate comparison would have been with the pre-ban race car livery rather than the cigarette packet, as these used very different typefaces. It is all intended to maintain the recall built up over many years of using the actual trademark, an objective reinforced by the placement of the ‘bar code’ in exactly the same positions on the car and drivers previously occupied by the full logo. And let’s face it, it wouldn’t be there at all if Philip Morris didn’t think they were getting some benefit from it. Finally, whilst granting that hypocrisy is the stock-in-trade of all politicians, in this case the heat is coming from non-governmental groups.

    Here’s the giveaway: you know how no tobacco branding can be included on scale models in the EU because they are classified as toys which can be marketed to children? Well, no scale model (built or kit) of a Ferrari F1 from 2007 on has ever included any version of the ‘bar code’, although it is possible to buy aftermarket decals.


      May 6, 2010 at 3:47 pm

      “Here’s the giveaway: … no scale model … has ever included any version of the ‘bar code’,” I never realised that, but indeed, the F2008 (Raikonnen, 1:38) model I have as a placeholder for my birthday present does not have it, just two white swooshy stripes!

      Seb: Great to see this article here! I have hoped since malaysia that you would have a small comment on the improvement of red flap of the HRT front wing (now only partly red, and looking a lot better). I hear rumours that they updated the livery for Spain too – there is now more spanish influence apparently.

    Ned Flanders

    May 7, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    Great article. I hate Ferrari and their lies

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