Camel Clubbing

They do not wait in lines, show IDs, pay cover charges or purchase concert tickets to gain access to the area's most popular bars and clubs. Once inside these venues, they are treated like low-budget celebrities, sometimes drawing a small crowd, several handshakes, and admiring nods from bar and club staff members.They are R.J. Reynolds' Camel Club kids -- fashionable, twenty-something clubgoers, who, armed with a black canvas bag filled with Camel cigarettes, slip in and out of dozens of area bars and clubs, from coffee houses, to small concert halls, to gay dance clubs. Their job: blend in with the bar and club patrons, make friends with the bar staff and offer smokers free Camel cigarettes, R.J. Reynolds' premium brand.These Camel Club kids should not be compared to those candy-striped cigarette girls or miniskirt-clad alcohol peddlers, who attract a lot of attention but can be more annoying than effective in enticing bar patrons to try their product. Camel Club kids look like they belong. They are R.J. Reynolds' ambassadors of cool. And they are the front-line workers in a relatively new, multimillion-dollar cigarette marketing campaign known as the Camel Club Program. The goal of the Camel Club Program -- beyond the obvious aim to increase sales of Camel cigarettes -- is to create an alternative marketing campaign and cigarette distribution network, one that will not be affected by changing federal regulations or the scores of tobacco-related lawsuits clogging the courts. In other words, R.J. Reynolds wants to create a sales program that no longer relies on Joe Camel, obnoxious giveaways and promotions, or even vending machines to move its smokes.R.J. Reynolds has begun to market its cigarettes through bars and clubs frequented by the twentysomething smoking crowd in only about a dozen cities, including Cleveland.An examination of the Camel Club Program in Cleveland, reveals that R.J. Reynolds already has a near monopoly on the sale of cigarettes in most of the city's bars and clubs that cater to young crowds. R.J. Reynolds created this monopoly by spending more than $120,000 on marketing agreements with club owners, who, in turn, give Camel Club kids exclusive access to their establishments. R.J. Reynolds also has targeted coffeehouses -- havens for young smokers -- and concert clubs that feature all-ages shows.Money For Nothing To set up the Camel Club Program, representatives from R.J. Reynolds and KBA Marketing, the young and progressive Chicago-based marketing firm that manages the Camel Club Program, first go in search of a city's trendy bars, restaurants, coffeehouses and concert clubs. Usually, about 40 area nightspots make the scouting team's hit list. Next, KBA hires a couple of clubgoers with a knowledge of the city's nightlife scene and rents for them an office. These clubgoers became KBA's "city managers." Their job was to contact club owners on the hit list and sign them to a one-year contract giving R.J. Reynolds exclusive rights to promote and sell Camel cigarettes in their establishments. Within months, city managers easily sign the majority of bars and clubs to the program. Bar and club owners would have been foolish not to sign. In Cleveland, for example, R.J. Reynolds signed roughly 30 bars and clubs. First, R.J. Reynolds offered them cash, between $1,000 and $18,000, depending on the club's size and traffic flow. For instance, the Drip Stick, a sleepy coffeehouse in Cleveland's trendy Warehouse District, received $1,000, while the Odeon, a concert club that features local and national rock and alternative acts, received $17,800, according to club industry insiders. R.J. Reynolds puts no restrictions on how the money can be used.On top of the cash, R.J. Reynolds agrees to supply the bar owners with Camel beverage napkins, ashtrays, personalized matchbooks and bar paraphernalia like neon lights, a marketing tactic similar to promotions traditionally done with beer and liquor products through local distributors. R.J. Reynolds also buys regular full-page advertisements in an entertainment publication in each city to collectively promote the clubs and helps in the printing of expensive glossy flyers featuring their concerts and special events.After the city managers sign bar and club owners to a contract, they arranged a meeting with staff members of each venue to outline what they would get out of the program. Every bar or club staff member who smokes receives free Camel cigarettes, usually a couple of packs, each time a Camel Club kid visits. The staff receives Camel promotional items like Zippo lighters, MagLite flashlights, T-shirts and hats. In return, R.J. Reynolds expects these bar staffers to promote Camel cigarettes by smoking Camel products while they work, and by displaying individual Camel cigarettes behind the bar. "You notice more people asking to purchases cigarettes from you, increasing your tips," the city managers are supposed to tell the bar staff at their orientation meeting, according to KBA marketing materials. Death Of Vending MachinesAnother goal of the Camel Club Program is the elimination of vending machines, which display competitors' cigarettes, such as Philip Morris' Marlboro brands. To do this, KBA's city managers encourage bar and club owners to discontinue selling cigarettes in vending machines, and instead, exclusively sell Camel cigarettes displayed in small lighted kiosks placed behind their bars. Nearly all of the bars and clubs in the program have placed Camel kiosks, which hold forty packs of cigarettes, behind their bars. Here, too, R.J. Reynolds' sales pitch was hard to refuse: Eliminate the cigarette and vending machine distributors -- the middle men -- and pocket more cash. Using vending machines, bars and clubs earn roughly between 25 and 50 cents on a pack of cigarettes that retails in the machine for about $2.75. R.J. Reynolds charges the clubs $1.52 per pack. So clubs that sign on with R.J. Reynolds can earn 97.5 percent profit on a pack of cigarettes that retails for $3 behind the bar. That's $60 profit every time they empty a kiosk. R.J. Reynolds also offers better service than traditional vendors. The Camel Club kids are on call to service the kiosk at all hours. If, for example, the club runs out of cigarettes in the middle of a concert, the bar manager can call one of the club kids, who will deliver fresh packs immediately. If a bar owner has a pre-existing contract with other cigarette companies and vending machine distributors, R.J. Reynolds expects the bar's owner to request from the vending machine operator that it "convert the top 11 columns" of the machine to Camel brands. New FDA regulations that will take effect later this summer prohibit all bars, clubs and restaurants that serve patrons under 21 from selling cigarettes in vending machines. By getting club owners to agree now to sell Camel exclusively, R.J. Reynolds is effectively locking out other cigarette makers from entering the bar when the regulations take effect. The "Under the Radar Approach" KBA launched the Camel Club Program in late 1994 in Chicago, and quickly introduced it into New York, Dallas and Los Angeles. The Camel Club Program's style has a lot to do with KBA and its founder, Kevin Berg, a former club owner. Berg does not hire "suit and tie" corporate types; he hires men and women who have nightclub experience and who are on the cutting-edge of fashion and pop culture. People with such experience and style are easily accepted into the club scene and carry far more "credibility" than the often stiff corporate cigarette representative. For instance, Twig -- a Cleveland Camel Club kid -- on a recent visit to a concert club, wore thick, black-rim, retro-styled glasses, a leather coat that hung below his waist, wide-leg blue jeans, and red shoes. His demeanor was relaxed, as he made little effort to distribute the cigarettes. He gave a few packs of Camel cigarettes to club staff, laughing with them as if he were an old fraternity buddy. He then took a seat for the show. During a recent visit to Cleveland's Brillo Pad, a dimly lighted lounge with a soothing beat, Camel Club kid Don Vega walked behind the bar and served himself an orange juice, passed a few packs of cigarettes to friends and the bartender, played a game of chess with the owner, and left. Being associated with a "cool" scene is the image R.J. Reynolds wants to build. "By operating in the nightlife scene, the objective is to directly reach trend influencers, the people that start and maintain trends. Our association with trend influencers ... will have a lasting impact on clubgoers who will begin to associate Camel with what is 'cool,'" reads KBA's marketing material.KBA believes by using the Camel Club kids and "interacting with the club patrons using a low-key, under the radar approach, is our best way to establish that we understand and are a part of the scene."Once in the scene, Camel Club kids, who are paid hourly and typically work four to six hours a night, try to convert smokers to Camel by offering smokers fresh, full packs of Camels in exchange for their remaining non-Camel cigarettes. In return, the smokers are supposed to fill out an address card, known as the "name generation" card, which is passed back to R.J. Reynolds.According to KBA's marketing plan: "This personal approach to selling is designed to, if executed effectively, convert the smoker to Camel and show the adult smoker that Camel is 'cool' by the way we establish this subtle interchange." [KBA declined to comment for this story and instead, asked R.J. Reynolds to respond to the Free Times. R.J. Reynolds did not contact the paper before deadline.]Big Hair and Bubble GumIf R.J. Reynolds' stated goal is to influence trendsetters and be associated with "cool," one has to wonder why KBA city managers targeted and signed Cleveland's Club 1148, a discotheque in Cleveland's popular riverfront. Club 1148 is anything but hip; the only trendsetters that hang out here are those left over from the '80s. On a recent Saturday night, for example, hairsprayed women in tight frosted jeans flounced around the dance floor as bare-chested men in vests watched from the sidelines. Many of the club's smokers chewed gum while they took long, rehearsed drags on Camel cigarettes.So why is R.J. Reynolds paying Club 1148 $5,000 for the right to distribute its cigarettes? The answer may lie in the club's demographics. The club is open to 19-year-olds. And while KBA marketing materials state its goal is to "convert adult smokers at least 21-years-old," R.J. Reynolds needs to influence existing young smokers because they are less brand loyal, and therefore, more willing to try and then possibly stay with Camel cigarettes.Reaching young smokers is perhaps the same reason R.J. Reynolds is interested in coffeehouses, which attract young smokers. Coffeehouses are far more trendy than Club 1148. The clubs that receive the most money from R.J. Reynolds are the concert clubs, which often feature all-ages shows. It also invests heavily in promoting bands on behalf of these venues. Club tie-ins and joint sponsorship of bands are the cornerstones of the Camel Club Program. This is R.J. Reynolds' way of reinforcing the message that it is supporting the "scene." "Camel events are the single most important way that we leverage our relationship with [Camel Club Program] venues," says the KBA marketing plan. Dan Kemer, senior director of advertising and marketing for Belkin Productions, the concert promotion company that owns the Odeon concert club in Cleveland, says the Camel Club Program helps promote artists he wants to showcase. "It's another good marketing tool ... the biggest bonus to us is the program helps get the word out on the street," says Kemer about the additional advertising dollars and printed flyers he receives through the program. Asked if he thought R.J. Reynolds could reach minors by promoting all age-shows, Kemer says he uses the program to tie into events that appeal to an older population, like the recent Me'shell Ndege'ocello concert. "It's a great program for us," says Kathy Simkoff, who runs Cleveland's Grog Shop concert club and received $7000 from R.J. Reynolds. She says the Camel Club Program's primary goal is to help clubs with promotion, not distribute cigarettes to patrons. Simkoff says the Camel Club kids have been "very careful" not to distribute cigarettes to minors attending concerts and she often does not know they are in the club. "They don't get in your face like the Jagermeister girls," she says, referring to hired models who troll Cleveland bars, pushing the sweet alcoholic Jagermeister shooter.Similarly, John Michalek of Cleveland's Peabody's DownUnder, an all-ages concert club in the Flats which reportedly received $9,000 from R.J. Reynolds, says the program helps him promote shows and he "has not seen any problems" with the distribution of cigarettes to minors.But anti-smoking groups see the Camel Club Program as a campaign to attract underage smokers. "R.J. Nabisco's Camel Club Program is just another strategy to seduce young people both over and under the age of 18 to use their deadly product, and is another indication as to why independent oversight of tobacco industry advertising and promotion is essential," says Lucinda Wykle-Rosenberg, research director for INFACT, a national corporate watchdog organization. INFACT is currently sponsoring a boycott of products made by R.J. Reynolds -- which owns Nabisco foods -- because of its cigarette marketing campaigns. Wykle-Rosenberg says the Camel Club Program is a campaign to get around anticipated regulations. What has long upset this group and other dedicated anti-tobacco groups are the alarming death rates associated with smoking and the rate of addiction among teenagers. The Centers For Disease Control says 400,000 Americans die every year from tobacco-related diseases, and has reported that smoking rates for students in grades 9-12 increased from 27.5 percent in 1991 to 34.8 percent in 1995. A 1996 University of Michigan study released in 1996 showed smoking among high school seniors has increased to the highest level in 17 years. And it is this demographic group, anti-tobacco advocates worry, that is attracted to such campaigns as the Camel Club Program. "It's the Camel blitz," says one local bartender and Camel Club Program participant, who does not smoke. "The Camel kiosks are everywhere."


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