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Crown Royal and Drunk Driving: Interesting teammates

by Scott Morris
Thursday, January 21, 2010

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Crown Royal #60 MSR Ford-Riley
For the record, 11,769 people died in 2009 from drunk driving crashes. Approximately 30% of road vehicle deaths are attributed to alcohol.

Crown Royal recently announced their sponsorship of the Michael Shank Racing car number 60 Ford-Riley to be driven by John Pew and Ozz Negri for the GrandAm Road Racing Championship.

Of course, that doesn’t sound like shocking news…until you realize that convicted drunk driver AJ Allmendinger is also a Michael Shank driver. Simply having these two parties under the same roof and ownership, sends a message that seriously marginalizes the responsible drinking message.

AJ Allmendinger
Convicted Drunk Driver
Convicted Sept 18, 2009
Iredell County, NC
-60 days jail (susp)
-18 mos probation
-24 hrs community svc
-mandatory treatment
However, those of us in the sport know quite well that the money flows into the same place, and the drivers are signed by the same team. It’s all under the same roof, which makes the association nonetheless valid. After all, the press release issued by the team had the Crown Royal name and AJ Allmendinger's name in the very same press release, which is on my desk right now.

If each car were separately incorporated and owned, and operated out of a separate transporter or facility, I could lend a bit more weight to that claim, but they do not. We can be sure that if AJ were to find something in the car setup that was particularly fast, that the Crown Royal car would benefit as well. Clearly, Crown Royal benefits from AJ Allmendinger's presence on the team, and AJ also benefits from their sponsorship of the team as well, in being part of a better funded and more competitive team. Those dollars allow the team to do more with their car and development and be more competitive overall. This is additionally supported by the fact that they had already announced a two-car effort.

Chad Hurley, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving reacted to the Diageo Sponsorship of Michael Shank Racing  “It is obviously a team sport, and it doesn’t really matter what Diageo and Crown Royal or anybody want to call it, but it certainly is not leadership.” He went on to say that he does not have a problem with the product, and in fact stated that MADD has been pleased with some of Diageo’s actions in the past, but that MADD has been disappointed with the actions and weak, contradictory message that they have displayed in recent years.

Hurley goes on to state “Diageo talks a great game on the responsible drinking message, until it conflicts with the marketing” which certainly seems to be the case here. If they were that concerned with the message, they would avoid any such association, even at arm’s length.

I contacted Michael Shank Racing seeking comment from Michael Shank, and was only able to reach his wife Marybeth Shank, who is listed as the co-owner of the team. Though she preferred to reserve comment to her husband Mike, she did say to me “…look, we are just trying to make a living here and we had an opportunity to sign a sponsor…”

Michael Shank never did return the call or email, or offer any comment.

Actually, Crown Royal's name does appear on AJ Allmendinger's car!
My question to them would then be why, once they signed Crown Royal, did they keep AJ on the team? They do have a full stable of drivers after all. It is no secret that there are any number of excellent drivers they could bring in as a replacement. So with this being a questionable relationship at best, one would think that the team (and Diageo) would be extra attentive to the details, and make sure that they avoid any potential controversy or negative publicity.

The Michael Shank Racing response seems to indicate indifference to an issue that has been a prominent occurrence of late, with JC France also being charged with DUI as well as drug possession, in the midst of a very nasty and public court battle with Jeremy Mayfield, and several other very questionable incidents involving the sport’s drivers and officials in the past 12-18 months alone.

Hypothetically speaking of course, saying that Crown Royal has nothing to do with AJ and his role on the team is like a businessman telling his wife, that when he travels with his very attractive personal assistant/massage therapist, they share a hotel room to save on expenses.

Even though that might be entirely true, it certainly does not send a positive message to anyone, especially his wife.

If this is OK, and does not send a message of trivializing drunk driving (at the least), or blatantly endorsing it (at the most), then this should establish a precedent for a major handgun manufacturer to soon announce a partnership with Washington Wizards, the New York Giants, and maybe even sponsor Eminem’s next concert tour.

After all, a gun manufacturer would not be sponsoring Gilbert Arenas or Plaxico Burress, they would be a marketing partner with the team…right? They would not be endorsing Eminem’s personal action of careless use of a firearm, but merely sponsoring the music tour. Of course one has nothing to do with the other….right? After all, the gun was not responsible for the personal actions of the individual…right?

Ultimately,  this is generality is true. I do feel that alcohol companies have absolutely no bearing or fault in any drunk driving actions on any individual’s part. Is the decision of the individual, who is responsible for their own actions.

However, that is different from effectively (directly or indirectly) endorsing the actions of someone who has misused your product. It’s a terrible message to send, and morally lacking at best.

Essentially, this action negates every message that DIAGEO has sent from their responsible drinking program. As a significant number of dollars have been spent on this message through internal campaigns, and support of the Century Council, I would think that stockholders would also be concerned about this.

To clarify, I contacted representatives of DIAGEO, the parent company of the Crown Royal brand. I called Gary Zizka, the VP of Public Policy and the chief of their responsible drinking message and campaign.

Mr. Zizka has not responded to our offer to print his comments on behalf of Diageo and Crown Royal. We contacted him multiple times by email and telephone, and have received no reply.

In an effort to get some sort of comment on this issue, I contacted the Century Council. The Century Council is a liquor industry supported body that is, according to their website (www.centurycouncil.org) “…a leader in the fight to eliminate drunk driving and underage drinking…”and promoting “…responsible decision making regarding beverage alcohol”

We contacted the organization and spoke with Senta Boardley, who stated repeatedly that the Century Council cannot make any statement on behalf of Crown Royal or Diageo regarding this issue.

However, that was not the question I asked. My question was “Does the Century Council feel that this sponsorship of a racing team that employs a convicted drunk driver, is a contradiction to their supported efforts of the Century Council to send a responsible drinking message?”

I never received an answer to my question from Ms. Boardley, and she promised to have Leslie Kimball, VP Communications contact me. At the time this was posted, we have yet to hear from Ms. Kimball.

It is important to also note that Diageo is the largest supporter and funding source for the Century Council. This might explain why they have numerous stories about drunk driving convictions, but no story mentioning the convictions or arrests of anyone in any Diageo sponsored arena. You can go to their website and search for it yourself.

They do not find it worthy of noting on their website, yet the DUI arrest of a Danville PA basketball coach is covered in detail.

I suspect there may be a question of integrity to be raised with regard to the Century Council’s mission.

In fact, MADD CEO Hurley stated that “The Century Council is a front-group for the liquor industry...”

Walking around the GrandAm paddock and chatting with a number of players in the sport, the mention of this was met with some interesting smiles and smirks, but also no specific comments.

Suffice to say that one would think that both parties would make every effort to keep the furthest distance between them, or avoid any sort of negative association.

Responsible drinking is a concept we all need to embrace. In our sport it is especially relevant due to the audience that we reach.

By the same token, responsible advertising is something that the liquor companies, namely DIAGEO need to adopt, without contradictions like this.

Beyond that, with all of the DUI issues in NASCAR and GrandAm of late, I would think that NASCAR and GrandAm would steer as far away from a situation like this, as conceivably possible.

As of the posting of this article, 689 people have died this year from alcohol related crashes.

I am curious to see if Crown Royal, AJ Allmendinger or Michael Shank Racing have the integrity to reevaluate this relationship, and the statement it makes.

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