When Cameron Haven and Kimberly Phillips appeared in a Playboy.com video a couple weeks ago modeling IZOD IndyCar Series apparel, it sent the blogosphere into a titter. Some longtime series fans, especially women, objected at the nature of the video, saying it went beyond the exploitation of women that even GoDaddy.com uses in their television ads. The video was provocative indeed, with the two women baring almost everything (but nothing deemed explicit by American standards) for the camera.
And in the end, the photo shoot and video did exactly what they were designed to do: they got people talking.
Now, this wasn't the type of thing that most other major professional sports would do. Far from it. Yes, Playboy has a lengthy racing history, but they've never been allowed on a stock car; instead, much of the bunny's recent racing exploits have come in European touring cars, where sexuality is a lot less taboo, and in American sports car racing, where there is a much smaller chance of a large public outcry against the brand. Its support has almost never been detrimental to any series.
In a way, Playboy is exactly the kind of supporter that IndyCar needs at this point in time.
For one, getting IZOD and Playboy involved took IndyCar's desire to capitalize on the sex appeal of racing to a whole new level. Does anybody remember the brilliantly half-assed "Sexier Drivers" campaign? No people, no cars, just white text on a black background with the series' shield next to it. It was about as visually interesting as your everyday encyclopedia. I think you'd be hard-pressed to remember the ad campaign.
But this, on the other hand? We're not going to forget a Playboy shoot anytime soon. It was provocative without doing anything to damage outright the series' reputation. It had front-page status on Playboy.com, which is clearly no slouch of a website. And I'm sure that such exposure at least reintroduced the brand in some subconscious sense to a good amount of people.
Witness what Rally America, the United States' sanctioning body for rally car racing, has done to entrench itself in the public eye. They've painted rallying as an "extreme sport," which - although almost certainly demeaning to the European professionals - gives the sport a unique and memorable identity here in the States. It also opens up the sport for an edgier sponsor base, with all of the big four energy drinks keeping the sport afloat, much like cigarette companies did before tobacco advertising was banned.
The American way of doing rally-car racing has attracted big names to the sport. Motocross champion Travis Pastrana. DC Shoes founder Ken Block. 1999 Indianapolis 500 winner and former IndyCar champion Kenny Brack. The list goes on.
Better still, bringing rallying to events like the X Games has opened it up to a brand new, younger fan base that would have never cared about the sport otherwise. Rallycross is one of the most popular events at the X Games. People pack the Home Depot Center to watch it, year after year.
IndyCar ought to take a page out of Rally America's book, by taking a traditional form of racing and marketing it in a way that makes people perceive it as edgy.
Purists will scoff at the notion of revamping IndyCar in such a way. Some fans would like to see the roadsters of the 1950s return to the track. It'd be nice; from a pure racing standpoint, it would be the ultimate competition. But unfortunately, the Indy Racing League has painted itself into a corner where they must do everything possible to re-establish a brand that was on life support before IZOD entered the picture.
Remember that John Barnes, the owner of Panther Racing, pointed to the younger generations as the future of the IndyCar fan base. I'm 19; I know what my peers in Generations X and Y like. I may not always agree with the hottest trends myself, but I have an idea of what works.
Brands that create interesting ads - Old Spice, for example - need to be enticed into the series, by presenting them with drivers who can act as spokespersons on and off the track. I've been saying for a little while now that Graham Rahal and Old Spice would be a great fit, especially if we could get Rahal to grow his father's trademark mustache. It'd also get the series' best young American talent back on track, at a time where part of IndyCar's downward spiral is owed to European drivers bringing their own sponsors from home. American fans just can't relate to those guys quite as well.
(Not to get all jingoistic once again, but part of my criteria for these spokespeople is that they be American. It just has to be, for the reasons I've stated above. Also, I'm not really promoting the cause of American open-wheel racing, or living up to my website's name, if I'm not going to at least go to bat every once in a while for guys like J.R. Hildebrand, Ed Carpenter, Charlie Kimball, Townsend Bell, Jonathan Summerton...)
K-Swiss has also jumped into the "edgy ad" department recently, hiring actor Danny McBride to reprise his Kenny Powers character from HBO's hit comedy Eastbound and Down in a series of ads with real K-Swiss athletes. (If you don't watch the show, Powers is a washed-up ex-pitcher who's looking to regain big league glory.) In effect, as a recent Silent Pagoda post highlights, he's Paul Tracy in another sport. They're both closer to the end of their careers than the beginning, they're both intensely confident, and they both have no problem messing with you if you get in their way. An ad campaign with the two of them facing off would be gold.
Finally, all four of the energy drink brands have had an IndyCar presence in the recent past - Monster with Tracy, NOS with Dan Wheldon, Red Bull with Buddy Rice, and Rockstar with Tomas Enge. But the two sponsors that actually used to serve as primary sponsors - the latter two - have moved out of the sport entirely, with Red Bull going stock car racing and Rockstar shifting its marketing dollars into drifting. It's these brands - and their thick checkbooks - that need to be brought back into the sport.
Imagine how popular a team of Tracy and Robby Gordon would be at Indianapolis for Monster. Picture a NOS ad campaign with their two top drivers, Wheldon and NASCAR's Kyle Busch, facing off in various extreme challenges.
Better yet, imagine two more zany Red Bull drivers on the track for the full season. Maybe Rice is gone for good, but keep in mind how many drivers Red Bull sponsors across various forms of racing. Indy Lights leader Jean-Karl Vernay was an ex-Red Bull driver. Recent Formula 1 champion Kimi Raikkonen rallies in Europe with their backing right now. If Red Bull validated Indy Lights by giving its champion a full-time ride (sorry about this year, J.R. Hildebrand) and brought an ex-Formula 1 champion into the sport again, Nigel Mansell style, the value for IndyCar would be enormous.
This isn't even taking into consideration the brands that already have a presence in the sport. The National Guard would love to have a greater young fan base to work with, I'm sure. Racing has been an important recruiting tool for the Guard in recent years, and having more teens and young adults to recruit as a direct result of edgier brands entering the series would only help them.
Better yet, IndyCar can do this while still preserving the more "adult" brands in the sport (and no, I don't mean the Playboy kind of "adult"). Target, for example, has a potential goldmine in Dario Franchitti, especially if they can get Ashley Judd involved somehow. Will Power will need a little time to develop a stronger commercial persona for Verizon, but it can be done.
And let's be honest - the brands lending their names to engines in 2012 are not going to be the Scions and Kias of the world. They're going to be Honda, Lotus, and (if Roger Penske's alliance with Fiat Chrysler is as strong as I think it is) Alfa Romeo, returning to America after quite a while away. And BMW, while not guaranteed by any means, have alliances in sports cars and car dealerships with a handful of top open-wheel teams. Brand loyalty is important to establish at a young age, and lending their names to these IndyCars will give the younger demographic some luxury brands to aspire to in the future. (Keep in mind that IndyCar is the only American sport that can really do this, with a fan base that generally makes a comfortable salary every year and can potentially afford these vehicles.)
IndyCar needs to open itself up to those edgier brands by creating a cost-effective environment for potential sponsors, while also offering them solid spokespersons that can actually drive a racecar. The ones who are already in the sport aren't going to shy away from the larger and more coveted marketing demographic that the Red Bulls and Playboys of the world will bring in - they'll take advantage of it. After all, marketing is a business, and isn't that what business is about - taking advantage of the opportunities presented to you?
The Playboy shoot was the first step in that direction for IndyCar. Now it's time to go further.