by John Pemberton May 17, 2011
A little over a month and a half ago, the organizers of the Indianapolis 500 announced that Donald Trump would drive the pace car for the 100th anniversary of the famed race. The pace car driver has the honor of driving a ceremonial pace car around the speedway in front of the race field during one of the warm up laps. Typically the honor is given to a celebrity, war hero or former driver of some esteem.
The connection between Donald Trump and the 500 was made between two organizations with connections (NBC/Comcast and Philips VanHeusen), hoping to cross pollinate, promote and market the race to a larger audience that Trump might bring to the table. Almost immediately, many traditional IndyCar fans began to voice concerns about the selection, hoping instead to honor either a war hero or celebrate one of the iconic drivers from the 100 year history of the event.
In the weeks that followed, Donald Trump spoke publically on the “birther” controversy as one of the doubters of President Obama’s place of birth, while at the same time rumors and speculation grew as to whether “The Donald” would run for president himself. Soon a “Dump Trump” Facebook movement began, and within three days it had acquired over 25,000 followers all committed to preventing Trump from driving the pace car. Ultimately, the decision was made that, because Trump was too busy to attend the training sessions required to pilot the pace car, Indy 500 icon A.J. Foyt would be his replacement.
But the question remained: would having Trump associated with the race move the needle? For an event with ratings that have slumped in recent years, would association with a high level celebrity, even a polarizing one such as Trump, provide a lift in viewership?
InsightExpress recently fielded a piece of research on research centered around the subject of sponsorship in sports, with some emphasis on racing and the Indy 500 in particular. The project collected a sample of 400 respondents, representative of the US population balanced across age, gender and region, from May 5th to May 16th. Included as part of the research were some questions pertaining to Donald Trump and the Indianapolis 500.
When asked to identify who the driver of the pace car would be for this year’s Indy 500, 68% of respondents indicated that they had no idea. However, 16% were able to identify one of the drivers involved in the controversy, with 8% indicating Trump and 8% indicating Foyt. Interestingly, IndyCar icon Mario Andretti was mentioned by 7% of the sampled audience. Overall, the selection, controversy and replacement had not made large ripples in the general population.
Respondents were asked specifically how the involvement of Donald Trump with pace car duties would affect their likely viewership and their esteem of the race. Responding on a three point scale where the options were “More Likely”, “Neither more or Less Likely” and “Less Likely,” respondents were asked if the selection of Donald Trump to drive the pace car would lead them to be “more or less likely to watch the race this year.” By a margin of 30% “Less Likely” to 10% “More Likely,” the survey audience suggested that Trump’s selection would be detrimental to the viewership numbers associated with the race.
For comparison, a similar question was asked as to whether the 100th Anniversary of the event’s first running would have an impact on viewership of the race. Using the same scale, 22% responded “More Likely” and 7% responding “Less Likely” indicating that emphasizing the anniversary of the event was more likely to have a positive impact than the selection of Trump as the pace car driver.
When asked whether involving Donald Trump would affect their opinion of the prestige of the race, 31% of respondents indicated that his involvement “Diminishes the prestige of the race.” Only 9% responded that Trump’s involvement would “Increase the prestige of the race” with the remaining audience indicating that it had “Has no effect on the prestige of the race.”
Data would suggest that the selection of Donald Trump to drive the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 was an ill fated choice. The broader question remains, are celebrity endorsements in general more likely to bring an audience with them or not? One thing seems clear to in this instance, with a polarizing figure such as Donald Trump: his detractors are more likely to use his involvement as a reason to stay away than his supporters would use his involvement as a reason to tune in.