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Eyeballs are only part of the equation

by Brian C. Mackey
Wednesday, June 11, 2014

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Brian C. Mackey
OK, here we go again.  Once again, I read some motor race marketing materials, I get them all the time.  This time from a reasonably high profile drag racing team, talking about "eyeballs."  They stressed that motorsport marketing is all about eyeballs, how many eyeballs will see the race car, how many eyeballs will see the sponsor logo, how many eyeballs will watch on TV.  Blah blah blah.  Eyeballs.  Eyeballs.  Eyeballs.  Well here's what I say to that.

Eyeballs my foot.

Eyeballs aren't half the story.  What they do tell us is the size of the audience, and that's about all.  A bigger audience is of value, but if racing, that is everyone from Formula One to Indy Car, NASCAR, NHRA, IMSA, the whole bunch, is ever going to see its way out of the wilderness, they need to realize two things that matter here.

Eyeballs are cheap and eyeballs are dumb.  Allow me to explain.

Suppose you were an Indy Car owner and you might be feeling pretty good right about now after a successful Indy 500 event.  Wow, some 400,000 fans er, uh, I mean eyeballs, were entertained on race day and your car was smack damn in the middle of it.  Wow.  Pretty cool, eh?

As it relates to eyeballs, here's the news flash.  Consider that I'm a small business owner in Marietta, GA and I want to reach some "eyeballs."  I know what I'll do, I'll trot on down to the busy intersection down by the Marietta Big Chicken (look it up, it's on Wikipedia) and hold a sign.  Better yet, I'll pay some young and hungry high school kid on summer break ten bucks an hour to hold the sign for me.  Let's do the math….20000 cars a day….crunch crunch crunch, carry the one…crunch crunch.  Well, it seems that I could basically reach the same number of eyeballs as the Indy 500 in about a month.  That would cost about $1600 bucks to me.  And, Mr. Indy Car owner, just how much was that sponsorship on your race car again?  How much?  Uh…..no thanks.  My point is that motor racing in all its forms has not been, nor is it now, nor will it ever be a competitive marketing play simply to reach an audience – to get eyeballs.  No way and no how.  I know, I know, there's television too.  We'll get to that later.  But eyeballs are cheap.  Every single form of sports, events, festivals, meetings, conventions, state fairs, even trivia night at the local bar, every single one of them gets "eyeballs". 

That brings us to eyeballs are dumb.  Boy are they.  That don't do anything.  They just watch.  They don't buy anything, they don't consider anything, they don't DO anything.  They're completely passive.  And that's the problem.  As the advertising industry lingo would put it, there's no call to action.  To an advertiser or sponsor, that's considered a big problem.  To put it bluntly, if your eyeballs don't care about racing, I don't care about your eyeballs. 

No, my friends, eyeballs are not the primary benefit of sponsoring a race car.  To seek the value of motorsport marketing you definitely need to go further.  To carry this allegory all the way to the end, you need to reach for something more meaningful.  Let's call it...brain cells!  Ah, now, you've struck a nerve!  Brain cells matter.  Brain cells do things.  They fire the neurons that make us remember; that's recall, they influence; that makes us buy.  They are what every advertiser, marketer and salesman of every kind is trying to reach.  Each in their own way wants us to buy their product/service and to do that you have to make the audience care; they have to reach the elusive brain cell to make the case. 

And that is the cue for drivers to step in.  Race car drivers create the drama of motorsports.  Without them, we wouldn't be able to draw much impact and without drama, we can't create as much selling power.  When the audience sees a race car fly by at 200 plus mph, knowing there is a soul on board at the wheel, we go way beyond eyeballs and touch upon the elusive and powerful element that every advertiser, marketer or salesperson worth reaching wants to be a part of.  You reach a level of personal engagement far more important to advertisers and marketers than just dumb eyeballs and far more indefinable.    When you engage in motorsports, you engage a step further, and the audience cares.  And when the audience cares, it matters to an advertiser.  A lot.

Now, let's talk about television. When I sold television, albeit many years ago, and yes, we had color TV back then, we had three basic elements that we used to get advertisers to buy ad time.  1.  We were the only TV station in town. 2.  We were "mass" media at a time when that was viewed as an advantage and 3.  Television was the most influential medium ever invented by man.  Whether that is all true or not is beside the point.  We sold it that way.  When you advertise on television, you reach eyeballs.  No doubt about it.  However, even then, back in the day, we included television's ability to "influence", that is to say, reach the brain cells, because we all knew that eyeballs alone wouldn't, couldn't, can't, won't, sell anything. 

And here's the final straw about television advertising.  They "rank" their value, that is to say, how much they charge to advertise, primarily on eyeballs.  They break it up into little groups, of ratings, and shares and demographics, but nevertheless, the principal means to measure the cost is to measure audience size, a measurement of people watching television.  Why?  Because television is not called, or used to be called, mass media for nothing.  Television can reach eyeballs extremely efficiently.  Today, maybe not as much and that represents televisions own battle lines and challenges.  But television can still reach eyeballs far more efficiently than motor racing.  Always has.  Always will.

But racing events are broadcast on TV too?  Don't we need to get higher ratings and then we'll get more sponsors? In my opinion, yes and no.  If we're constantly in a battle for eyeballs we're in a game where we're at the disadvantage.  When racing events are part of the editorial content, the broadcast subject matter, it's more challenging to control the message or even get much commercial messaging across to the audience.  Yes, the exposure derived from television broadcast is helpful, but in a very real sense, exposure alone is akin to eyeballs, with very little call to action or influence on the viewer.  It's true that motor racing stands nearly alone for its unique ability of creating a significant influence from exposure alone, but that's a difficult game plan and fails to take advantage of motor racing's strengths as an event marketing alternative.  With and without television, influence sells products, eyeballs alone don't. 

If racing were to stress its strong points of influence on the audience, of incredible visual power, of its personal engagement with the audience, a sizable audience of keen, passionate race fans who are very eager to support the companies that are part of the show, all supplemented, enhanced and expanded by television coverage, then eyeballs alone as the single primary benefit become far less important in the eyes of sponsors.  After all, they want to sell their product and if we tell them the right story, the proper story, the relevant story, we may convince them that motorsports is precisely the most applicable, powerful, and influential medium to create impact for their brand.  We don't just reach an audience, we mesmerize it! 

So, in the meantime, what's this drag racing team talking about?  Eyeballs.  See the problem?  We have a strong sales and marketing story but no one seems to be stressing it.  And so, here we are, wandering around the wilderness trying to find our way back to the path of success by talking about eyeballs, searching for answers in all the wrong places.  In the end, the answer, I believe is right there in front of us, staring us in the face, but we're too focused solely on eyeballs to see it.

[Editor's Note: You need both - you need a lot of eyeballs, and you need to mesmerize the brain cells attached to those eyeballs.]

Brian C. Mackey
brian@mackeymarketing.com
Twitter:  @mmgatl

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