Sunday 11th February 2007
Alex Massie in Washington
It's a very public move from a traditionally secretive and mysterious organisation. But concerned by an ageing membership, America's most senior Freemasons have decided on a bold new strategy: advertising.
The Scottish Rite, which represents more than 500,000 Freemasons across the United States, has joined major American brands such as Budweiser as a sponsor of Nascar racing.
The Masons will this year be the principal sponsors of car number 34, driven by rookie Brian Conz who is himself a member of the organisation. There will be no charge to the organisation, however - instead they will offer Masonic activities to the racing team.
Frank Cicci Racing's car will have "Scottish Rite" emblazoned on its bonnet and the traditional Masonic symbols of a compass and set square on its sides.
According to some estimates the Masonic message could receive as many as 30 million "impressions" each race - a figure calculated using the number of viewers and the number of times each car is seen on screen.
"The culturalists we've talked to tell us there's a window.
Young people these days are looking for ways to give back to their communities," said Stan Dodd, a spokesman for the Scottish Rite.
The median age of Freemasons is now over 60 and the move into Nascar's series of races is designed to promote Freemasonry to a younger generation of American men.
"We need some younger members," said Dodd, adding that the Nascar demographic fits naturally with the Masons' target audience: "men". The advertising strategy also aims to counter bad publicity spawned by conspiracy movies such as The Da Vinci Code which portrayed the Masons as a sinister global network.
The freemasons point out that they contribute more than $750m a year to charity and other good works.
The Scottish Rite, based in Washington DC, represents more than 500,000 Freemasons across the country and is one of the most significant "Appendant Bodies" in Freemasonry.
Formed in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1801, the Scottish Rite also owns one of the most extensive collections of Robert Burns' poems and manuscripts.
No fewer than 14 US presidents from George Washington to the late Gerald Ford have been masons, from George Washington to the late Gerald Ford have been Masons, while other prominent American members have included Benjamin Franklin, John Wayne and General Douglas MacArthur.
Ordinarily sponsorship of a Nascar car would cost as much as $2m a year.
The Masons, however, are not paying.
Instead the Scottish Rite "will lend its name to the team and will provide staff support for masonic activities related to the race programme".
Frank Cicci Racing hopes that aligning itself with a nationwide organisation such as the Freemasons will open up opportunities for the team to take advantage of the Masons' membership and make lucrative sponsorship deals in the future.
"We're aligning ourselves with a dynamic, worldwide organisation.
We expect access and introduction to their members, who will assist us in meeting
executive-level corporate leaders interested in getting involved with racing," a spokesman for the team said.