When a way to display digital advertising on racecars was pitched to McLaren, team officials were concerned it was just a gimmick.
Brand logos are already on cars, but this new method allows teams to show additional ads because they appear on panels mounted on the side of the cockpit and are visible to home viewers because of the television camera installed behind the driver. The display changes, showing a range of advertising messages over the course of a Grand Prix weekend.
After seeing the technology in action for the first time, Louise McEwen, executive director of brand and marketing at McLaren Racing, said she was “blown away.”
“I had to use quite a lot of imagination, because it was very much in its infancy,” she said in an interview.
“But what came across was not just the opportunity that was an absolute first, but as a brand, it was something that would underline our desire to drive innovation on the grid. It’s in our DNA, that Bruce McLaren founding influence.”
The company behind the technology is Seamless Digital, based near Silverstone, the home of the British Grand Prix.
After debuting the technology at the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, during practice last year, McLaren is now using the system during whole Grand Prix weekends. Seamless said four more Formula 1 teams would use it this season, although the company would not identify them.
Mark Turner, the founder and chief executive, said he “set about trying to create a system that would be durable and authentic.”
“What we didn’t want was something just for the sake of it being there,” he said in an interview. “It’s really about performance, and that was our mind-set through and through. It can’t be detrimental to aerodynamics or weight.”
The initial system weighed 350 grams, which was too heavy for a sport in which added weight affects performance.
A “no go,” McEwen said. “Mark knew that was a challenge, but he worked hand in hand with our aerodynamics team, and ultimately we drove the weight down to a point where we were good to run it.”
It now weighs 190 grams and is 800 microns, point eight of a millimeter thin. “We’re using e-paper material, like the outer layer of a Kindle, combined with T.F.T. [thin-film transistor] backing to make it flexible,” Turner said. “It allows us to conform it to the aero surface.
“We are still trying to get the weight down because we want the smallest, lightest possible system that gives the best value to the teams.”
Despite the initial success of the system in Texas, McLaren was still wary.
“In embedding a piece of technology like this, there was a risk it would be viewed as a gimmick and a distraction for the driver,” McEwen said.
The advertising messages can be programmed into the system and are visible to TV audiences. Most people in the stands can’t see the ads.
“Keeping it to the driver’s side means it gets picked up on the onboard cameras, so that was kind of key,” McEwen said.
“Last year we signed Google,” she said, the only brand using McLaren’s new system. “It’s a match made in heaven, with the advertising alternating between their Chrome and Android brands.”
Neither Seamless nor McLaren would say how much brands would be charged to use the system, although Google was not paying extra because of a pre-existing contract with McLaren.
Turner said Seamless would work with a team to determine what sponsor would appear at any given time.
“At the minute what we’re pushing is situational relevancy,” he said, where “you can have a specific message for a specific state the car is in, whether it’s making a pit stop or it’s behind the safety car.”
The company hopes to expand use of the technology, adding the panels to golf bags, for instance. “Helmets are the next milestone we’re tackling,” Turner said. “You think of all the different motorsport series, but also you think of the N.F.L.”
For now, Formula 1 is the primary focus. “We want to make sure that by using our system,” he said, “a team can bring in money and put it into car development.”
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