I, like a few of you I imagine, don’t really pay attention to Formula One in the off-season. Once the season is on, IT’S ON, but in the off season? It’s mostly just Kimi standing around looking awkward. I’m a racing man! Bring me the cars, at speed! So, when I saw the big flash of “MISSION WINNOW” on the back of the new Ferrari, I was confused. What is this company that I’ve never heard of being the title sponsor of one of the biggest teams?
In short, it’s cigarettes.
The longer answer is, of course, much more obfuscated than that. The official sponsorship actually began last season, at the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka in October 2018, just as F1's 2018 season hit its tail end.
The press release announcing the deal is as long as it is fundamentally meaningless, but it does provide some hints. The first hint comes right at the beginning, that vast tobacco conglomerate Philip Morris is behind it, but anything after that is mostly marketing gobbledygook:
Philip Morris International Inc. (PMI) (NYSE: PM) and Scuderia Ferrari today rounded a new turn in their 45-year partnership with the unveiling of Mission Winnow, a new global initiative to create engagement around the role of science, technology and innovation as a powerful force for good in any industry.
I don’t think anyone doubted the role of science, technology, or innovation as a force for anything, really. So what the hell is going on here?
Philip Morris is the maker of cigarettes we all know and love(?), with brands like Benson & Hedges and Marlboro, which long-time F1 fans will note was Ferrari’s main sponsor going all the way back to 1984.
The sponsorship is so vital to Ferrari that it even helped pay for Michael Schumacher’s salary back when he was racking up championship after championship for the team.
It all ended in 2006. Well, actually, it didn’t, but it was supposed to, since F1 banned the tobacco advertising that was so entrenched in 2006. No more “MARLBORO” emblazoned on the back of the Ferraris. So instead, Philip Morris went to this thing, dubbed the “barcode,” that even a British doctor’s group noted was “subliminal advertising” for cigarettes:
You would think after being told “no more cigarettes,” and then getting busted for running cigarette ads anyway, Ferrari would instead go to another company with similarly deep pockets but with slightly fewer moral quandaries, such as Saudi arms dealers or I dunno, “the blockchain.”
But no. Ferrari and Philip Morris have extended their deal again and again, presumably because it works for both of them. Ferrari gets money with which to race its cars, and Philip Morris gets to stick the words “Mission Winnow” on the back of the cars.
So what is Mission Winnow? The aforementioned press release really does not explain what the hell it is, even as it delves into gibberish about the definition and etymology of the word “winnow”:
“Winnow” originally referred to the removal of chaff from grain, but it came to be used more broadly to describe the separating out of the unnecessary, the extraction of the good and distinguishing what is true from what is inaccurate or misleading. For PMI, this is critically important in a world of information overload.
And indeed, cigarette companies in the past have truly been Very Concerned about people getting the Right Information, instead of the Wrong Information. Definitely. Even though a federal judge found in 2006 that cigarette companies, including Philip Morris, “have known for decades that cigarette smoking was addictive, and that nicotine is the addicting element in smoking behavior,” and that their “false and misleading statements relating to addiction continue even today.”
Oh, and that they “deliberately and intentionally hid this information from the public and closed down research laboratories and on-going projects in order to ensure secrecy,” and that “time and time again” tobacco companies “falsely denied these facts to smokers and potential smokers, to government regulatory authorities, to the public health community and to the American public.”
A quote in the press release attributed to Miroslaw Zielinski, with the title of “President Science & Innovation at PMI,” says that Mission Winnow is about “what we believe in.”
It’s a little vague about what precisely what Mission Winnow believes in beyond cigarettes, however. I went to the Twitter page listed for Mission Winnow, and it was filled with incomprehensible zen-like brand koans about telephones and a man staring out over what is presumably a field of cigarette smoke:
“I must focus on the right path, of nicotine,” our heroic Winnower must be thinking. “Even if not killing people is the most challenging.”
So I went to Mission Winnow’s website listed in the press release.
There’s a lot of more blather about “innovation” and “technology” and “culture,” which includes lines such as “what we achieve as an organisation, both alone and with our partners, will be reflected in the accomplishments of the people who join our cause.”
(In case you have forgotten, Mission Winnow’s “cause” is tobacco. Or vaping, maybe.)
Further exploration of the website is about how Mission Winnow is dedicated to finding non-smoking tobacco alternatives, and that it’s experimenting on donated human tissue for those would-be alternatives effects on people “before human trials.”
And all of this human experimentation is tons of fun, but what is Mission Winnow truly about? Finally, a mission statement:
Mission Winnow has a simple goal: drive change by constantly searching for better ways of doing things. And by committing to learning and knowing more, it’s easier to make choices that improve the future for everyone. To make this happen, we’ll get inside the minds of outstanding innovators and change-makers, to see why and how they achieve excellence.
From world-leading engineers and scientists to cutting-edge creatives, the people at PMI, and our partners at Scuderia Ferrari and Ducati, have the know-how to challenge the status quo, drive revolutionary change and to be champions. They have devoted their lives to finding a better way, and their stories of endeavor and success are inspiring.
Ah, now it all makes sense. Mission Winnow is the venue for Philip Morris, and its sponsors at Ferrari (and Ducati!), to be champions. Of tobacco.