A few weekends ago, I was strolling down my street in D.C. when I noticed something odd. No, not the massive Masonic temple adorned with a pair of stone sphinxes and an eerie ziggurat. (The temple's certainly odd, but D.C. residents quickly stop noticing it.) Rather, what caught my eye was the scene in front of the temple: On the wide steps, beneath the sphinxes' unnerving gaze, there sat a bright blue, NASCAR-style race car, looking entirely out of place—as though it had magically teleported to this spot from some tobacco-stained test track in North Carolina.
On the car's hood—where you'd expect to find the logo of a famous brand, like Home Depot or Budweiser—there was a painting of an eagle with two heads. On the car's side was a strange little glyph: a drafter's compass crossed with a set square. On the rear bumper was written "ScottishRite.org."
The Scottish Rite is a worldwide organization of Freemasons—the centuries-old fraternity that is sometimes accused of controlling "like, everything, man," and counts among its members several founding fathers and a slew of presidents (including George Washington, both Roosevelts, and, more recently, Gerald Ford). The Rite's global headquarters are housed in that giant, intimidating temple on my street. The compass with square is a traditional symbol of Freemasonry. None of which answers my real question: Why on earth are the Masons advertising on the hood of a stock car?
I called up Stan Dodd, who manages public relations for the Scottish Rite. (Yes, even the notoriously secretive Masons have a PR guy.) "Like a lot of other civic groups," he said, "we've seen our membership get a little older, and we've seen some retraction in our numbers." Dodd says the Masons' median age right now is in the 60s. "We need some younger members."
Enter NASCAR. Driver Brian Conz (who competes in NASCAR's Busch Series races) is a Mason and helped engineer this deal between his race team and the Scottish Rite. By appearing on the hood of Conz's car, the Rite will reach millions of viewers during ESPN's race coverage. (Up to 30 million "impressions" per race—a figure that calculates the number of people watching, and the number of times a portion of the car appears on screen.) "The NASCAR demographics fit our demographics," says Dodd. When I ask him to be more specific, he just says, "Men."
(I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions about what other attributes the NASCAR demographic and the Scottish Rite demographic might share. Dodd says the only previous major promotion he's done is with a Masonic country singer who writes songs with titles like "The Masonic Ring" and "The Rite Stuff." I should also note that there is a separate, much smaller division of the Scottish Rite, which holds jurisdiction over 15 northern and northeastern states—this crowd might be less likely to exhibit a passion for NASCAR and country music.)
Why choose now, after decades of very low-key or nonexistent membership marketing, to suddenly chase ESPN-level visibility? "The culturalists we've talked to," says Dodd, "tell us there's a window. Young people these days are looking for ways to give back to their communities."
While the outside world likes to picture the Masons as a shadowy cabal of power brokers, Dodd describes them simply as "men with like interests" who do good works. He says Masons donate about $2 million a day to charity, pointing out projects like the Scottish Rite's efforts on behalf of children with hearing and speech pathologies, or the free hospital care famously provided by the Shriners (another Masonic group). Dodd says that Masons have gotten some bad press lately—he takes issue with The Da Vinci Code, which portrayed the Masons as part of a vast, globo-religio-historical web of intrigue—and he feels the NASCAR affiliation is a way to counter those negatives and promote the Scottish Rite as a crew of kindhearted Samaritans.
But don't worry, pie-eyed conspiracy theorists. There's fodder in this story for you, too. What's the Scottish Rite paying for all this national television exposure—plus the exposure at promotional events in which the Scottish Rite car appears at malls and such, plus the Scottish Rite logo showing up on the team's souvenir merchandise at the track and online, and so forth? Nothing. Dodd says the Rite's only contribution is "some staff support." Dodd also acknowledges that buying placement on the hood of a Busch Series car would generally cost, for a commercial sponsor, up to and over $2 million per season.
I called Joe Hill, head of public relations for Brian Conz's racing team, and asked him to explain how he expected to make up this missing money. What is the team getting from the Scottish Rite in lieu of all that cash? "We're aligning ourselves with a dynamic, worldwide organization. We expect access and introduction to their members, who will assist us in meeting executive-level corporate leaders interested in getting involved with racing." Presumably, these rich and important men will prove useful in sponsoring race teams down the line. *
So, Brian Conz and his race team seem to share at least one belief with the conspiracy theorists: That Freemasonry is a path to great access and influence. The existence of this notion is a boon for the Masons, as evidently it convinces some people to forgo great sums of money just to get on their good side.
Grade: It all depends on how well the team does. If the car is leading races for dozens of laps at a time, the Masons will get obscene amounts of airtime. If it's lagging at the back, not so much. Either way, there's no doubt this ad buy is easy on the marketing budget. (Not like the Masons need it. They recently sold some real estate they owned in Chicago for more than $50 million.)