Auto racing star Danica Patrick was involved in two major announcements last month: (1) she signed a three-year contract extension to drive the GoDaddy.com IndyCar car for Andretti Autosports and (2) she signed a deal to drive a GoDaddy.com sponsored car for JR Motorsports in the NASCAR Nationwide series on a part-time basis.
Fitness Information Technology contacted Jacquelyn Cuneen, a leading sport marketing scholar, to get her thoughts on the impact of Patrick’s two announcements. Cuneen, a former editor of the Sport Marketing Quarterly, and colleagues published (SMQ, Vol. 16, No. 4, Dec. 2007) an analysis of advertising portrayals of female drivers in the Indianapolis 500 official program that revealed that Patrick’s arrival in the IndyCar circuit altered the way that female drivers were portrayed in advertisements.
Q: What are your thoughts from a sport marketing perspective about Patrick delving into the NASCAR circuit?
Cuneen: “It’s a smart move for her, really. She has twice the opportunity for endorsements since those two motorsports do tend to reach specialty fan bases with different product interests. In other words, it extends her as a celebrand, if that’s possible since she’s already known globally. It can also help each of the associations (IRL and NASCAR) as well as the numerous individual events where she drives—she’ll be a draw on multiple circuits.
“She can definitely expand her own opportunities as well as open up new avenues for all sorts of sponsors by creating crossover exposure between the two circuits. In addition, if her representatives and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s representatives can work out the details, which they may have already done as part of the behind-the-scenes negotiations, then it’ll be a shot in the arm for both drivers, both circuits, all the sponsors—and both drivers’ fans.”
Q: In what ways should NASCAR market Patrick and how beneficial do you think she’ll prove to be, financially speaking, for NASCAR, especially considering it took a slight downturn financially this past season?
Cuneen: “Hopefully they’ll market Danica as a skilled driver, but we should absolutely anticipate the sex-appeal angle. While the IRL itself never really hyped Danica’s movie star good looks to the point of exploitation, the individual race events went that direction and there’s every reason to expect NASCAR events to do the same.
“However, at the same time, NASCAR likely wanted her because she’s an established driver with a loyal fan base, and those fans will follow her when they may not have had any previous interest in the stock car circuit. Her current followers are used to watching her drive around Indy-car tracks at about 50 mph faster than the speed she’ll hit on a NASCAR track, but they’ll stick with her. However she performs, she’ll also draw new fans to NASCAR and she’ll prompt some existing NASCAR fans to switch favorites. Her merchandising should take off—that’s where she and NASCAR may realize the first big returns on this venture.”
Q: Patrick will be driving a GoDaddy.com car in both racing circuits. There’s been much criticism over GoDaddy.com’s sexually suggestive commercials, which have earned quite a bit of attention particularly during the Super Bowl. What are your thoughts on Patrick’s relationship with GoDaddy.com and how she’s been portrayed in a sexually suggestive manner in some of its advertising and marketing campaigns?
Cuneen: “Danica herself has control over how she’s portrayed in advertising. If Danica wants to be portrayed as a serious driver on either circuit, she would be better off insisting on commercial/advertising portrayals that depict her as such. Indy driver Lyn St. James had good looks as well as driving skills and thus had the opportunity to be featured as a sex- symbol rather than an accomplished driver, but she instructed her agents to not commit her to such depictions; Danica could do the same if she preferred to do so.
“There are numerous male drivers with movie star good looks and strong celebrand credentials (e.g., Helio Castroneves, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Sam Hornish Jr., Kasey Kahne), but we don’t see them featured in sexually suggestive portrayals to the extent that Danica has permitted for herself. Hey, it’s her business and her decision, but it doesn’t do much to help her standing as a serious threat on the track and it doesn’t do much to blaze a trail for future female drivers.”
Q: Tennis star Anna Kournikova didn’t start the trend of female athletes appearing in sexually suggestive advertising but she probably popularized it more than anyone. Now female athletes in tennis, swimming, soccer, racing, and other sports are regularly appearing in similar sexually suggestive advertising. What are the benefits and drawbacks of this trend, for both the advertisers and the athletes?
Cuneen: “There is a great financial benefit for the athletes, for sure. There’s no denying that it’s also beneficial for their sports, because it draws attention to them. The advertisers benefit as well, but maybe not to the extent one might think if the target is the female consumer. First of all, research, much of it published in the Sport Marketing Quarterly, informs us that women prefer to be portrayed as strong, competent, and independent in advertisements, particularly in sport-related ads. Second, male consumers, more than females, respond to endorsements while female consumers, more than males, seem to respond to cause marketing.
“Finally, Danica’s original management agency, Players Group, wished to avoid the pitfalls of marketing her as an Anna Kournikova-type glamour-girl and designed a strategy for her modeled on the marketing plan used for tennis player Maria Sharapova—one that would let her develop as a performer. Note that even in her famous I Feel Pretty ad for Nike, Sharapova kept her game face on while everyone around her stereotyped her as a sex symbol. With few exceptions (i.e., Secret, Peak), Danica’s initial portrayals also featured her as strong, competent, and independent (e.g., Firestone, Argent).
“It would be interesting to know why her new management devised a plan that seems to be the direct antithesis of the original, particularly when Danica herself hoped to overcome the sex-appeal angle according to previous comments. Danica is awaiting her first major victory while Sharapova had already won a major championship at her comparable stage of career development, but Danica’s top ten finishes certainly place her among the racing elite and leave plenty of room for her to be portrayed as a top driver. However, there will always be a question about her abilities as long as she decides to go Kournikova’s rather than Sharapova’s route.”