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Joining the Clubs

Tobacco Firms Find a Venue in Bars

September 25, 1997|Denise Gellene

At Dragonfly, an oh-so-hip nightclub in Hollywood, a cigarette girl wearing a pillbox hat snakes through a crowded dance floor hawking packs of Camels.

Inside the Safari Lounge, a neighborhood hangout in West Covina, patrons line up to play Marlboro's Gear Game, a computer game in which winners instantly receive hats, shirts and towels with the Marlboro logo.

At 35er in Old Town Pasadena, bar-goers play pool under a Tiffany-style lamp adorned with Lucky Strike logos.

Faced with a likely ban on most types of advertising, tobacco companies are taking their messages to one of the few venues left: nightclubs and bars. According to nightclub owners and managers, tobacco firms are dropping considerable sums to sign exclusive deals with the hottest clubs.

While bar promotions aren't new, tobacco firms have upped the ante over the last 18 months, as pressure to curb cigarette advertising on billboards and in magazines has mounted. Though the programs exist to some extent in the nation's largest cities, Los Angeles has emerged as a major battleground.

Dragonfly owner Howard Chapnick said tobacco companies are dangling offers worth in the "hundreds of thousands"--a considerable jump from the current $50,000-plus deal Dragonfly has to help peddle Camel and Red Kamel, both R.J. Reynolds Co. brands.

"A lot more money has started flooding into the clubs," said Chapnick, whose warehouse-style venue draws wall-to-wall crowds of tattooed, body-pierced young adults.

Tobacco companies are forging ahead with promotional plans despite an upcoming ban on smoking in bars and clubs. Barring last-minute legal action, the statewide ban goes into effect Jan. 1.

Brown & Williamson, for instance, launched its promotion for Lucky Strike in Los Angeles three weeks ago--as a movement to postpone the ban in the Legislature failed. In splashy ads in free newspapers such as L.A. Weekly, Lucky Strike hypes the bars in its program and refers readers to an e-mail address if they want more information. It's throwing a kick-off party for managers and employees of clubs participating in its "Lucky Nites" program Sunday at the Century Club in Los Angeles.

While tobacco company representatives wouldn't comment on their plans, marketing experts said the maneuvering for popular bars and nightclubs has just begun.

"You are going to see them try to saturate every available adult-only venue as fast as they can," said Ken Harris, a consultant with Cannondale Associates in Chicago. "Since bars and nightclubs are restricted to adults, tobacco companies view them as safe havens."

Tobacco company representatives, citing competitive issues, declined to provide many details about their programs. In general, tobacco companies give clubs free napkins, coasters, signs and other goodies--covered with logos of cigarette brands. Nightclubs get free advertising in city weeklies, courtesy of the tobacco companies.

The companies said they do not distribute free samples to customers--at least not directly. But several club managers said the companies give them free cigarettes, which the clubs in turn sell or give away.

Lance Hubp, general manager of the legendary Troubadour club in Hollywood, said bartenders hand out the equivalent of a carton of Camels each week--though a chunk is probably smoked by employees.

"Some people are social smokers; they want one cigarette," said Hubp. "We keep the cigarettes behind the bar and supply them as a courtesy."

The value of the programs to clubs varies, according to managers. Where trend-setting clubs with exclusive deals reap large sums, several lower-profile bars said their deals were worth between $5,000 and $15,000.

Individual programs use different gimmicks. Philip Morris Cos. brings the Marlboro "Get the Gear" program into bars with games and giveaways. At the Safari Club last summer, patrons played a computer version of a shell game to find "gear" hidden in backpacks displayed on the computer screen. Philip Morris used the event to bolster its extensive mailing list--contestants were asked to supply their names and addresses and answer questions about their smoking habits.

Not everyone answered honestly. Destiny Tafoya, 24, admitted she lied to play the game; she won a cap with "Marlboro" emblazoned on it.

"I said, 'Yeah, I smoke four packs a day,' " she confessed.

Safari Lounge general manager Tina Ludwig said the promotions enhance the atmosphere at the club.

"It's a draw," she said. "Even people who don't smoke collect gear."

While Marlboro tends to favor neighborhood watering holes and bars with Western themes, Camel and rival Lucky Strike--in keeping with their hipper-than-thou advertising images--compete for trendy nightclubs.

Working through its promotional agency, Chicago-based KBA, Camel over the last two years has locked up many of the better-known clubs and convinced Dragonfly to hang a Red Kamel sign outside its building.

Inside Dragonfly one Sunday evening, the air was as thick as, well, smoke.

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