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Advertising & Marketing | ADVERTISING / DENISE GELLENE

Marlboro Won Big in NFC's Title Game

January 29, 1998|DENISE GELLENE

The big winner in the National Football League's advertising playoffs isn't a Super Bowl sponsor. It's Marlboro cigarettes.

Though tobacco companies can't advertise on television, Marlboro--thanks to its four billboards in San Francisco's 3Com Park--picked up more than 30 seconds of free air time in the heavily watched National Football Conference championship game Jan. 11 between the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers.

That gave Marlboro free commercial time worth more than $600,000, based on media buyers' estimates of what it cost to advertise in the telecast. The stadium signs cost Marlboro $250,000 annually.

The billboards, located below the stadium's sky boxes, turned up in the telecast despite a 1995 agreement between Marlboro maker Philip Morris Cos. and the Justice Department that is intended to keep tobacco stadium signs off the air.

When asked about the telecast, Philip Morris said it is cooperating fully with its 3-year-old agreement.

"Any broadcast is purely incidental," said Philip Morris spokeswoman Tara Carraro. "The signs are intended to reach out to adult smokers in attendance at the games."

But anti-tobacco activists said tobacco signs shouldn't appear in televised sporting events.

"I would think that this is a violation of the Justice Department's rules," said Stan Glantz, a medical school professor at UC San Francisco.

Eugene M. Thirolf, director of the department's office of consumer litigation, said he hadn't seen the telecast and declined comment.

Stadium signs came under scrutiny in 1995, when the Justice Department charged that Philip Morris used them to do an "end run" around what is now a 27-year ban on televised cigarette ads. The department alleged that the tobacco company strategically placed Marlboro signs in locations likely to turn up on TV.

Though Philip Morris denied it, government lawyers cited numerous instances where they believed the ban had been violated, including a Marlboro sign that had been positioned where it could be seen behind the goal posts of the city-owned stadium during the 1994-95 football season.

As part of its 1995 agreement with the government, Philip Morris agreed to relocate signs from locations "most likely" to appear in sports telecasts. Such locations included signs adjacent to the playing field, along walkways leading to locker rooms and between football goal posts.

Philip Morris currently has signs in seven professional sports stadiums. It has no signs in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium, site of the American Football Conference championship, or in San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, where the Super Bowl was played.

According to San Francisco city officials, signs at 3Com Park--including the billboard behind the uprights--were moved to other locations in the stadium as a result of the agreement. There are currently four signs in 3Com Park--all at the sky box level. They are located above both baseball dugouts, and in right and left field.

Though Philip Morris said the signs at 3Com are not intended to be in view of TV cameras, Marlboro billboards received an unusual amount of air time in the NFC championship, broadcast by Fox Sports.

A Marlboro sign was visible on TV for more than 25 seconds as Fox sideline reporter Ron Pitts was on the air just before kickoff. A Marlboro sign came in and out of view throughout the game, mostly during kickoffs and punts as cameras followed the flight of the ball. It was again visible over Pitts' right shoulder during his 10-second report during the fourth quarter.

Joel Robinson, director of San Francisco's parks department, said the billboards typically don't show up in game telecasts. He said that for the NFC championship, Fox positioned cameras where they evidently picked up one or more of the Marlboro signs.

"Under normal circumstances, you would not see those signs," he said.

Lou Dermilio, a representative of Fox Sports, said the appearance of the signs in its telecast were "purely incidental and accidental."

Last year, the Justice Department held discussions with Fox, Philip Morris and the NFL to ensure that Marlboro ads in the New Orleans Superdome did not appear in coverage of the 1997 Super Bowl. Philip Morris agreed to move a sign so that it would not be seen on TV.

Ironically, the Marlboro signs appeared in the NFC playoff game four days before Philip Morris' 10-year contract to advertise in 3Com Stadium expired. San Francisco City Atty. Mariam Morley said the contract won't be renewed because a recently passed city ordinance bans tobacco billboards.

"I can say that is it for the tobacco signs," she said. "There won't be more."

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