The Designer Cigarette Smokescreen
Cigarette companies are under fire, their very ads threatened with a partial ban, and so what do they do? They get whimsical, get hip, throw their arms around you--you readers of Spin, Details, Interview, the Stranger, The Village Voice. They design a Starbucks-like logo, offer packages with "alternative" edge, and, in general, try to blow smoke rings around your self-image. That of course is the tobacco companies' good-time face. They also file hardball lawsuits, take out sanctimonious ads about the tragedy of underage smoking, twist ABC's arm for saying Philip Morris "spiked" cigarettes with extra nicotine, swear before Congress that nicotine isn't addictive, and contribute heavily to Republicans. But almost predictably, the kings of cough suddenly switch roles to play the outsider and the upstart, as in two of their latest inventions: Dave's Cigarettes, a brand ostensibly rolled by a rustic little guy who goes up against the establishment--though it's owned by establishment top-dog Philip Morris; and Moonlight Tobacco Co., a small, seemingly Young Turk company that overnight introduced seven artsy cigarette brands--like Politix and Sedona--each, in fact, a boho mask for giant R.J. Reynolds. Marlboro-maker Philip Morris, the top seller with 45 per cent of the $44.5 billion tobacco market, and Camel-trainer RJR, No. 2 with 27 per cent, are only following the trend of huge corporations marketing fake-underdog brands. By muting or simply not mentioning the real corporate parent, the kid brand can come off as independent, rebellious, and somehow, as "Gen X." Like OK Soda for alienated youth, created (and now killed) by Coca Cola; or kooky Zima, made by conservative Coors; or retroish Red Dog beer, owned by Miller Brewery--which is owned by Dave's dad himself, Philip Morris. Red Dog ads, which fudges their ancestry, still have some people believing that Red Dog is a microbrewery. The success of real microbreweries has encouraged counterfeit rebel sells for all sorts of enterprises. And these microscreweries, as you might call them, are always spiked with outside sources of attitude. First, puff on Dave's, a discount smoke being test-marketed in Seattle, Portland, and Denver. The brand is based on the jokey "tale" of Dave, who "from the get-go, was determined to grow the fattest leaves in the county," as the ad copy in the Seattle Weekly goes. The script is drawn shakily, implying homespun. Over a cartoon of an easy chair and a remote control (implying regular guyism) are tobacco leaves hung up by...clothespins. You can't get any more Bartles & Jaymes (another big business cum mom-and-pop shop, Gallo). But Dave does, with the fiction that "Dave works for nobody but himself." Why the little-guy drag? Philip Morris spokeswoman Karen Daragan answers: "We're using a grassroots, unconventional approach about a fictional underdog who takes on the establishment by starting his own company." Well, yeah, but why? "We thought this was the best approach to reach consumers who want quality and character." Cigarettes are not nicotine delivery systems, as the FDA's David Kessler insists: they are character delivery systems. Why the name Dave? "It's common, it's mainstream, it's memorable," she says, and that's no lie. In fact, after "Bob," whose namesake products are numerous, "Dave" is the marketing moniker of the moment: There's Wendy's founder Dave, Dave's Beer in Canada, the movie Dave about a regular schmo made U.S. president, the TV show Dave's World, the Kids in the Hall tune "All the Dave's I Know." But mostly, Dave is the name of choice for underdogs everywhere: David against Goliath. Now Philip Morris gets to play both roles. Although the Dave tale is intended as chuckley fiction, it may lead even savvy smokers to believe that a few facts actually grow among the weeds. "He hand cut the fattest leaves and auctioned off the rest to some other tobacco company," the ad copy reads. But when asked if the leaves are any fatter than other cigs', the spokeswoman equivocated as if I had asked if smoking is harmful, finally saying, "I don't know if the leaves are fatter because that's a descriptive term and it's a tale." Oh. Fiction or nonfiction, the tobacco industry maintains that its ads provide information, helping "adults to make free choices in a free marketplace," as another Philip Morris exec has said. But other than printing mandatory tar and nicotine levels, what info in Dave's ads can help anyone make a free choice if the info's all pretend? Actually, Dave's is only a wee more make-believe than most cigarette campaigns--it's just a matter of which fiction we prefer to applique to our identity: Cowboy loner, Alive with Pleasure!, or grow-your-own authentic. Moonlight Tobacco Co. is going for something more downtown than down-home, more David than Dave. The seven new brands sold only (so far) in New York, Chicago, and, that Starbucks kind of town, Seattle, are not character-driven, like Dave's, so much as "art-driven," as RJR spokesman Frank Lester says. Clearly, the world wasn't waiting breathlessly for safer cigarettes, but for more dangerous design. "The products themselves are good," says Lester, "but the packages are designed to speak to the individuality of the adult smoker. This allows me to say, `Hey, I'm not run-of-the-mill. I smoke something different.'" "Cigarettes are something people pull out of their pocket 20 times a day," adds Dirk Herrman, Moonlight "co-founder" along with Diane Roberts (he was formerly a senior brand manager at RJR; she was in R&D). "These styles allow them to do it with a little more self-identity." Herrman got the idea from an East German brand that rotates package designs. "One pack looked like Warhol, one like Kandinsky, one like Mondrian, and I thought, There's got to be a way to sell cigarettes through packaging alone." Moonlight's target customer, Herrman says, is "interested in culture, in film, art, in being a part of that more than someone who sits back and reads about it in People magazine." And so Moonlight doesn't advertise in People, but in Details, Interview, Rolling Stone, and in alternatives like the one you're holding. Unlike RJR's earlier, ill-fated attempts to create cigs for other "niche markets" (namely Uptown, aimed at blacks, and Dakota, aimed at "virile women"), Moonlight's efforts probably won't be accused of offending, much less of trying to kill, its target market of artists. Dragging on death is part of the deal. The backlash against the antismoking movement has only enhanced the formula: along with unknown quantities of additives, you inhale iconoclasm. And as the backlash increases, it begins to seem perversely iconoclastic to join the Republican "revolution" when it defends its friends in the tobacco industry--who, in turn, fund the GOP. Maybe that's why Moonlight dared to call one of its brands Politix. I wondered if it was so named because of the coming election year. Silly me. "It's a play on the politics of smoking," says Lester. On the package is a hand making the peace sign and the words Lighten Up and Join the Party! And speaking of society's slide from real politics to puffy politix is the brand North Star; its Vietcong-like design apparently targets communists. But no problem: communism is just another style these days. (Filling out Moonlight's alternative carton are the elephant-emblazoned Jumbo's, the Camels of the bunch; "honey-roasted" Bees; Sedona, which happens to be the name of a New Age mecca in Arizona; and the urbane City and Metro. Said an editor as he played with the colorful packs: "I'm embarrassed at how excited I am." Others' comments: "Oh, cool." "The guy who did this is a genius." "Politix tasted kind of stale.") Other than the honey-hyped brands, Moonlight cigarettes themselves are not terribly different from RJR's other smokes. But it's looks that count. City, for instance, has "granite filters," as Herrman puts it. Granite? Well, it's just the color of the paper, he says. "But there's never been a cigarette that's looked like that. It's a perceptual issue, and the individual sort of fills in on some on these things." One thing no individual can fill in, though, is the identity of the company that actually owns Moonlight when its I.D. appears nowhere in the ads. "[RJR's name] is in every pack of cigarettes and in inserts that tell the story," answers Herrman. "But when it comes to advertising, there's only so much you can try to communicate in an ad." Besides, who cares? "It's not a consumer issue," he says. "No consumer reads the fine print."