Vroom, Vroom, Vroom

Tach it up, tach it up, Buddy gonna shut you down

In a brilliant move designed to rev up awareness of the coming sprint to the finish as the white flag drops in the DTV Transition 500, the FCC has jumped into the driver’s seat and shot onto the track by sponsoring the Number 38 Digital TV Transition Ford Fusion driven by David Gilliland in the NASCAR (unofficial motto: Drive Fast, Turn Left) Sprint Cup Series. (See photo above – which is not a real photo, in case you were concerned.)

The Commission’s goal is to increase awareness of the transition, and it figures that slapping its logo on the side of a Fusion and sending it out to trade paint with 40 other cars in the TUMS QuikPak 500 at Martinsville (and two other races at Phoenix and Miami) is just what the crew chief ordered.  And the FCC reportedly has put $350,000 on the line to make it happen.  That’s probably not a bad bet, since NASCAR has enjoyed considerable popularity nationwide for years. According to the FCC, nearly 8 million TV viewers tune in weekly. 

Of course, those 8 million viewers watch only one event per week, as contrasted with, say, the MLB league championship baseball play-offs – of which there are at least four per league, and up to seven over the course of 10 days, with per game audiences ranging from about 4 million to more than 10 million. So if reaching viewers is the name of the game, the baseball play-offs – not to mention the World Series – might have been the preferable play.

But let’s not second-guess the Commission, which is clearly thinking outside the box on this one.

If you don’t happen to be a NASCAR aficionado or cognoscente, David Gilliland is currently ranked 27th among NASCAR drivers in the Sprint (f/k/a Nextel, f/k/a Winston) Cup Series. He has started 30 races, but DNF’d in six of them. Oops. He hasn’t won any races, but does have a top five and two top ten finishes.

Some publicity photos of Gilliland show him in the No. 38 M&Ms car – which would appear to be sending a mixed message, what with the FCC’s efforts to discourage childhood obesity and all. As it turns out, though, his stint with M&Ms ended a year or two ago. He started the current season with FreeCreditReport.com as his primary sponsor. His secondary sponsors include Twix, Milky Way and Combos (“made with REAL CHEESE”), so there is still some possible disconnect there, but what the heck, it’s NASCAR. Other cars might have provided better co-sponsors in terms of image – the No. 43 Cheerios Dodge, or the No. 5 Kellogg’s Impala, or better yet, the No. 21 U.S. Air Force Ford Fusion. But again, at this stage in the season (and at this stage of the DTV transition), those alternatives may not have been available (at least not for $350,000).  At any rate, the Commission isn’t sharing chassis space with Jack Daniels or Viagra.  

While this bold promotional move may get the FCC the public awareness it’s looking for, there may be some conceptual problems to deal with on the backend.

For example, the three races in which the Digital TV Transition Ford Fusion will run are all set for broadcast on ABC. Will stations carrying those races be permitted to include race coverage in the calculation of their DTV education efforts? What about stations which would not ordinarily carry the races – aren’t they being disadvantaged by losing access to this potential educational resource? Is the FCC prepared to do something to help them out, too?

Let’s also talk about embedded advertising. The FCC, of course, has launched an extensive inquiry into the practice.  When we discussed that inquiry on our blog last June, we raised the question of how the FCC might treat coverage of sporting events – including, especially, NASCAR races – for purposes of embedded advertising. After all, as the FCC now knows, NASCAR racecars are, in a very real sense, bought-and-paid-for billboards, and coverage of a race amounts to near-constant visual images of those billboards. Those visual images are supplemented by commentary which invariably includes mention of the primary sponsors, since the official car names include the sponsors’ names (e.g., “the Number 38 Digital TV Transition Ford”).

Sponsors know all about that coverage, and that’s presumably why they pony up hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) for the exposure. That’s also presumably why the Commission has hopped on board as well.

But will the FCC insist that each mention of the Number 38 Digital TV Transition Ford be accompanied by some specific audio sponsorship identification – or, worse yet, a “concurrent” on-screen visual ID? In its embedded advertising inquiry, the Commission has suggested precisely such a requirement (although, to be sure, it did not specifically mention how NASCAR races might be treated). Now that the FCC is stepping across the line and joining in the commercial promotion scrum, it may come to recognize the undesirable, and unnecessary, intrusiveness of the sponsorship ID requirement it is thinking about imposing. And if the FCC does not insist on sponsorship ID’s for its car throughout the three races, how will it be able, somewhere down the line, to insist that such ID’s are necessary for everybody else?

One final query. The FCC is using taxpayer dollars to buy the sponsorship, so we’re all shareholders in the enterprise.  So where are our free — and way cool — pit crew T-shirts?