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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Advertising students pitch Millennials on life in the fast lane

NASCAR_400From its raw beginnings on Southern dirt tracks after World War II, NASCAR transformed itself into a sports colossus, attended by crowds in the hundreds of thousands, watched on television by the second-largest viewing audience in sports and bankrolled by the largesse of the Fortune 500’s elite.

But as it rounds the first corner of a new century, NASCAR faces the danger of crashing into a demographic brick wall: The “good old boys” who have had a lifelong love affair with the sport got old. Most of its television viewing audience is now over 50.

Knowing that capturing the next generation of fans is key to keeping the brand off pit road, Fox Sports and its newly launched NASCAR channel, Fox 1, turned to an innovative immersion program in the advertising department of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication called Fox Sports University.

Assistant Professor Dana McMahan divided 50 students from two J-school advertising classes into creative teams – each seeking to beat the competition as they developed their ideas, then pitched them to FOX Sports executives last month.

Only half the members of the winning team were from North Carolina, NASCAR’S birthplace. And not one, before getting this assignment, considered themselves fans.

What they had going for them, said team leader Laura Vroom – besides her last name, that is – is that they all belong to the target group NASCAR is seeking to draw to the sport.

All are Millennials, born after 1980 – a generation with fleeting attention spans, plugged into a constant flow of information and social networking from their smart phones.

As Vroom explained during a presentation to the University Board of Trustees last month, “We are Millennials, so we know how we think and we know how we act.”

Millennials accept that life can be hard and unpredictable, Vroom said. But for Millennials, “life can never be boring.”

‘You on life’

And it was this latter insight that inspired the winning campaign, “Life on NASCAR.”

Only 6 percent of the audience that watches NASCAR races on television is of Millennial age. To entice more people in this age group to tune into the sport, Vroom said, the team developed a strategy to get them to imagine what it would be like to live the sport on the track, strapped in the driver’s seat.

Vroom wrote the copy for the commercial spot that Fox Sports may or may not produce.

It begins with a Millennial stuck in the humdrum routine of a rush-hour traffic jam. The caption reads: “This is you living life on normal. This is you going the speed limit. This is you getting there – but not arriving.”

The spot then flashes to the same person behind the wheel of a racecar – where the calm begins to rev, the monotonous turns to thunder and “speed becomes so very limitless.”

Then the close: “You want unsettled, you need to feel thoroughly uncomfortable ‘cause when you feel the heat of the lights, the throw of 100,000 heartbeats and hear that champagne pop, you’ll be there, living it. Leaving your normal miles behind with burnt rubber and spent fuel.

“This is you on life. Life on NASCAR.”

Fox Sports University

The commercial is only one part of a multi-pronged campaign the team developed to get Millennials to experience NASCAR at a visceral level. It includes a huge focus on social media using #GrabYourCrew to encourage fan participation and celebrate the intensely social nature of the sport – a quality that aligns perfectly with Millennials.

Immersive in-stadium experiences and interactive print, mobile and outdoor executions of the same themes were also part of the students’ work.

This is the fourth year McMahan and her students have been involved with Fox Sports University. McMahan, Joe Bob Hester and Heidi Hennink-Kaminski piloted Fox Sports University at Carolina in 2009. At the time, there were only four universities participating. Now there are more than 20.

Anna Folwell, a 2012 graduate and member of McMahan’s winning Fox Sports University team that first year, now serves as marketing coordinator for Fox Sports and has become part of the client team that visits campus each fall to brief students.

McMahan said what made Fox Sports University unique was the opportunity for students to see their finished work produced.

In mid-January, Fox Sports implemented the social media campaign #GrabYourCrew, allowing fans to submit photos showing how their “crews” live life at a different speed ( The crew who submits the best picture will win a trip to the Daytona 500.

For undergraduate students to see their work come to life this way is almost unheard of, McMahan said.

But the broader educational value is seeing that even well-established organizations “need to learn how to behave entrepreneurially and be nimble in a changing market,” McMahan said.

Another term for that is ‘intrapreneurial,’ she explained – new thinking from the inside of a company about how to reinvent itself as time moves on and consumer habits change.

For NASCAR and Fox, that is not just an opportunity, but a key to remaining competitive as racing evolves and their viewing audience’s habits change, McMahan said.

“Part of what students got to see through this exercise is the life cycle of a brand,” McMahan said. “At some point, a company has to go through a re-visioning process that is much like launching something new.

“The good news for NASCAR is that they have this extraordinary history to draw upon. But then they have to ask how do they make that history meaningful in this instantaneous world that Millennials inhabit?”

Another bonus: NASCAR has invited the members of the winning team – Vroom, Michelle Brant, Cynthia Betubzia, Carolina Boese, Linsday Franco, Katie McNulty, Kathleen Doyle, Amy Glen, Katie Sweeney and (yes, one guy did make the team) Tom Brosnan – to attend the race in Daytona later this month.

Ladies (and gentleman), start your engines.