F1 an 'early architect of change... I hope other sports follow suit' - PR pros on grid girls retirement

Formula 1's decision to stop using 'grid girls' has been welcomed by PR professionals as a savvy move, despite the backlash in some quarters against the change.

F1's 'depiction of women [was] at odds with modern societal norms' (©Yasunari Goto via Flickr)
F1's 'depiction of women [was] at odds with modern societal norms' (©Yasunari Goto via Flickr)

The sport confirmed the change yesterday - MD of commercial operations Sean Bratches said: "The practice of employing grid girls... does not resonate with our brand values and clearly is at odds with modern day societal norms."

It follows a similar recent announcement by the PDC, which organises the Darts World Championship, and both have been linked to last week's shocking revelations about the Presidents Club fundraising event.

The change comes as Formula 1 looks to change its image and become more family-friendly under its new ownership. It hired a global comms head in February 2017 - a role that had not previously existed due to former owner Bernie Ecclestone acting as the sport's chief spokesman. It has used Edelman to help pursue this reputational change, with the PR agency helping put on an free street event in London later in the year. 

However, yesterday's news has been criticised as a triumph of political correctness; The Sun today called the sport's owners "prudish killjoys" under a front-page headline 'Formula Dumb', claiming fans were criticisng "snowflakes" for precipitating the decision. The paper had made similar laments about the PDC darts news.

Edelman, which continues to work for F1, declined to make further comment, but two PR professionals gave their view.

F1 'must appeal to Gen Z'

Emma Wright, senior account director in Hill+Knowlton Strategies' UK sports and partnership marketing team, pointed out that F1 was one of the first sports to ban tobacco companies from advertising.

And she said: "Once the PDC announced they were stopping walk-on girls, it was only a matter of time until other sports followed suit.

"The Sun’s reaction is unsurprising given their readership is used to a long history of page three girls. The FIA is correct though – this depiction of women is at odds with modern societal norms. We are unravelling now the true cost of the way that media has depicted women for decades, in the same way as we unravelled the health risks of smoking and as a result tobacco sponsorship ended. I hope other sports follow suit.

"Aside from the moral standpoint, if sports with a typically older, male demographic want to attract a new generation of fans then they need to reflect the social values of millennials and Gen Z. In 20 years’ time will F1 live or die based on the support of current readers of The Sun newspaper? I would argue not."

Rebecca Rhodes, co-founder of women-focused agency SuperHuman, told PRWeek she thought grid girls were at odds with the innovation that is at the core of F1: "I think most people, men and women, recognise that the 'birds and bangers' grid girl approach just isn't very relevant today. It looks wildly old fashioned, all a bit Benny Hill, a bit silly and more importantly has absolutely nothing to do with sport, especially an innovative one like F1."

"As for the plaintive cry of 'loss of glamour', this is surely a nonsense. F1 is one of the most glamorous sports in the world and you could argue the archaic use of grid girls lessens this. True progression, of course, would be more women behind the wheel and beneath the bonnet - not on it."

Separately, one copy editor wondered whether the announcement sounded pompous.

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