USA Today is now on the marketing payroll of NASCAR

USA Today ran a story this weekend by Nate Ryan entitled “Nascar going green, moving to ethanol blend fuel in 2011.” On this blog, we have spent a fair amount of time talking about both the use of buzzwords such as “green” and the pitfalls of biofuels. One post from a couple of years ago debunked the debunking of several ethanol myths while we have also looked into the prospect of biofuels dragging 30 million people into poverty and increasing carbon emissions by 30-fold. Needless to say, this story feels a lot like it is out of early 2008 rather than October 2010.

NASCAR is moving towards a 15% ethanol blend fuel beginning with the 2011 Daytona 500. While this isn’t the only green initiative, it is the one NASCAR would like to be the focus of its PR campaign according to NASCAR CEO and Chairman Brian France:

“When we said we had to accelerate our green efforts, this was a centerpiece,” France says. “It’s certainly the most visible thing we can do.It’s also one of the more difficult things that we do.”

If something as environmentally and socially destructive as corn-based ethanol is the centerpiece of your green efforts, then it’s not a stretch to say you have problems with your plan. The article does make a brief mention of other initiatives such as recycling and LEED certification for new buildings, but the bulk of the text is dedicated to the marketing advantage gained by the change in image.

But the switch to ethanol might be the most important step in achieving an ancillary benefit — attracting new sponsors in the green economy to cash-strapped teams hurting for funding since the onset of the recession.

“If you make a presentation to sponsor your car or race, it’s, ‘Well, tell us what you’re doing about green concerns.’ If you don’t have an answer, that may shut the door for you. They might not have an interest. There are some companies that are going to have budgets set aside exclusively for people that are actively green. There is a smart economical benefit to this.”

For me, the rationale behind having ethanol be the forefront of ‘green’ efforts is pretty clear. Thanks to some clever marketing and lack of real criticism of ethanol in the media, the public generally views it as a good solution. Also, it is a fairly easy and inexpensive switch for NASCAR and requires no huge switchover costs that other process changes may. Altogether this is a pretty inexpensive greenwashing campaign that allows NASCAR to get some free advertising from news sources such as Nate Ryan of USA Today.

One could make the argument that this is a relatively moot point as the prospects for NASCAR becoming a sustainable sport are bleak. I wouldn’t mind seeing some high powered electric cars race around the track, but we would also lose those roaring engines that make it so exciting at times. Like most every other sustainability effort, NASCAR is still in the ‘doing things less badly’ stage. It should get praise for the positive steps taken, but heavily scrutinized for this move.

In the end, my issue is not with NASCAR, but with Ryan. The title “Nascar going green…” is effectively advertising for NASCAR while the message of the article deals with the desired impact of the switch to ethanol on sponsorship. In fact, the author does not seem too concerned about the environmental consequences of a switch to ethanol, leaving that question unresolved:

NASCAR couldn’t provide many specifics about ethanol. France said the move would reduce the carbon footprint of a race (“we’re not exactly certain, but there is a benefit”).

If Ryan truly wanted the focus to be on NASCAR ‘going green’ then he would have investigated this aspect a little bit more to inform readers. If not, then the title should have instead been something along the lines of “NASCAR seeks to attract environmentally-conscious fans and sponsors through ethanol fuel blend.” Of course, that would be expecting a lot out of Nate Ryan and the mainstream media.