Media Circus: Smoke gets in your eyes

Cigarette company lights out for new territory: R.J. Reynolds' ad people cook up a magazine that pushes smokes -- as well as news of the dance and club scene.

Published December 15, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

If you've been to a trendy urban bar, club, hair salon, record store or clothing shop in the last six months, odds are that you've seen a copy of Sweater. A candy-floss glossy covering the club lifestyle from DJ arcana to pop techno artists and tennis shoes, Sweater is the latest magazine to tackle the techno scene. The catch? It's being backed by KBA, the marketing firm for R.J. Reynolds, and the magazine just happens to be plastered with advertisements for -- surprise! -- Camel cigarettes.

Editors at both club zines and mainstream music mags like Rolling Stone insist KBA is a front for Camel, which, they say, is the real force behind the magazine. "It's underhanded and sneaky," says Raymond Roker, publisher of the 7-year-old dance magazine Urb. "The lines are blurry and journalists can't figure it out."

Officially, Sweater is a joint start-up venture from KBA Marketing and Raygun Publishing -- quite simply, KBA owns, prints, distributes and markets the magazine, and Raygun provides the content. Described by one Rolling Stone editor as "Urb magazine with Barely Legal's cover strategy," Sweater has been contrived by Raygun's editors with "we're so cool we don't even try" content (extending to the pointedly abstract title) complete with self-aggrandizing writers and "Kids" and "Trees Lounge" star Chloe Sevigny licking her lips on the cover. But although the editors may attempt indie attitude, this is no typical bare-bones start-up: 300,000 copies are currently being distributed for free in 28 cities across America.

Flip through the pages and it's obvious what spawned the KBA-Camel conspiracy theory. Not only does Camel own the back page and an inside-cover ad spread, but a magazine survey queries readers, "Do you smoke? How many smokers are there in your household?" and the Club Notes feature hypes Camel promotional events: "Look for the annual bartenders' ball brought to you by the fine folks at Camel ... extravagant affairs ... exclusive, industry-only events."

KBA (whose clients also include Cuervo and Coors) denies that Camel has any direct connection to Sweater. "R.J. Reynolds is not involved in Sweater," says Steve Trimble, general manager on the KBA side, who grouses that the magazine is being demonized. "R.J. Reynolds is a client of KBA. They are not involved in content of the magazine. We promote a lot of different things with our magazine ... it's just like any other magazine does with their advertisers. You'd be hard pressed to find any more favoritism towards advertisers than you would in Wired."

Whether or not R.J. Reynolds actually has its hands in the cookie jar, KBA undoubtedly decided to launch a magazine because it knew its clients were eyeing a hot new demographic: hip, hard-drinkin', hard-smokin' clubbers. Clubs and bars are the last frontier for smokers, the only place left where smokers are welcomed, or at least tolerated. Not surprisingly, the dancing demographic has recently become immensely interesting to cigarette and alcohol manufacturers.

If Camel is directly or indirectly backing the magazine, it's a logical step. With those nasty new restrictions on tobacco advertising, the post-Joe Camel R.J. Reynolds is having to dramatically change its ad campaign approach anyway. If there's no outlet for reaching your target market, why not create one yourself -- albeit under the safety net of a guilt-free third party?

Camel certainly wouldn't be the first to try this. The last year has seen a surge in cigarette- and alcohol-backed, club-oriented publications. City newsweeklies are laden with special advertising inserts from Lucky Strike and Camel in the guise of local night life guides. Details last year ran an eight-page club guide-cum-advertorial backed by a handful of alcohol companies. And that doesn't even include the in-club promotions by Winston, Camel, Lucky Strike and a thousand alcohol brands.

In an even closer example, earlier this year Brown & Williamson (parent company of Lucky Strike) launched a Web site called Circuit Breaker that intermingled San Francisco club and event listings with a questionnaire that asked if readers smoked -- all of this with absolutely no mention of Lucky Strike or Brown & Williamson. Instead, the site was credited to Flair Communications, Brown & Williamson's marketing firm; and although the site quietly promoted events where Lucky Strike would have a "heavy presence," B&W spokespersons denied that the site was an advertising vehicle for Lucky Strike. No one was dumb enough to believe that, and after succumbing to watchdog-group pressure, the site is now labeled as being produced by a cigarette company.

Though self-righteous editors can be counted on to preach church-and-state with regard to Sweater's mix of marketing and content, the magazine's sell-out is not all that different from that of any other glossy. Consider the rapid rise of the advertorial and "shopping guides" in everything from Details and Vogue to the New Yorker. What mainstream publication these days can honestly proclaim that its editorial content is free from the influence of its advertisers?

Moneywise, the KBA-Raygun alliance makes a lot of sense. Magazine publishing is a nasty, expensive business, advertisers are hard to come by and newsstands are a battleground where only the strong survive. If you're going to launch a new magazine, why not ally with a wealthy marketing firm that not only has big advertisers already in its pocket, but has a 28-city distribution network at its disposal? All you have to do is disregard the fact that its business is to assist fat-cat companies purvey addiction to unsuspecting kids.

As a righteous Trimble puts it, "Alcohol and tobacco companies always have to be looking for a new medium because the moral police are always putting them in the hot seat. If tobacco companies push the boundaries of marketing, they're the bad guy, and then everyone else follows them." He adds, "I don't know if anyone else has the balls to do it the way we do."

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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