Blowing smoke

A large cigarette company is using a humorous 1-800 marketing message that speaks to us of love.

Published October 1, 1999 6:00PM (EDT)

Last week was a big, bad news week for giant tobacco corporations. The federal government filed a civil lawsuit against the top eight cigarette companies for lying to Congress and the public about the dangers of smoking.

But the tobacco-industry story generating the most buzz in newsrooms and office corridors was that the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. was in love: "Yup, you heard right. Brown & Williamson Tobacco is in love. We're a giant corporation, and you make us feel like a little kitten. Thank you, lover. By the way, the other tobacco companies hate you and think you're ugly. They told us so."

This prerecorded message -- complete with ambient piano music and a cheesy announcer -- is currently being played for everyone who calls the toll-free number printed on packages of Brown & Williamson cigarettes. The number is "a way for consumers to communicate with us if they want information on the brand, if they want to find out where to buy the brand or if they want to get coupons or other promotional material," says company spokesman Mark Smith. Customers who wish to receive any of these items must send a photocopy of their driver's license as proof that they're of age.

"It's not the major thrust of [the company's] marketing. This message was designed to entertain and have fun with people who are calling the 1-800 number," Smith told me over the phone from company headquarters in Kentucky -- "home of the Kentucky Derby, fine bourbon and burly tobacco."

What Brown & Williamson hadn't expected was for news of the message, which had been playing to callers for five weeks prior to being "discovered," to snowball over the Internet. "We've received thousands and thousands of calls above and beyond what we normally get," sighed Smith, who described the influx as "totally unexpected." Brown & Williamson has been running humorous messages on their 1-800 line for almost a year now, Smith said. This was the first to catch on.

And how. In addition to good old-fashioned e-mail forwarding, newspapers from St. Petersburg to San Francisco picked up the story, complete with objections from anti-tobacco activists. "Clearly it's a desperate attempt by a desperate company that's looking for ways to continue their name," Lynn Carol Birgmann, a Kentucky-based anti-smoking activist, told the Associated Press.

Fair enough. But if companies like Brown & Williamson are desperate, it's because people like Birgmann have successfully fought for and won harsh restrictions on how tobacco companies market and advertise their product. Since August 1996, when President Clinton announced sweeping restrictions on tobacco sales and advertising, tobacco has had to do away with advertising at sporting events and in magazines with majority-teen audiences; billboard ads were restricted to black-and-white text and banned within 1,000 feet of schools.

As a result, tobacco companies will have to resort to new means of advertising and marketing if they're to continue enjoying brand-name recognition. It's a problem Brown & Williamson knows well. They even address it on their Web site.

Under the heading "Marketing Principles and Practices," the site says: "Our Company competes in an aggressive yet highly restricted industry, and our opportunities for success depend largely on our ability to develop and sustain effective and engaging marketing programs." And under "Evolving Technology," it explains: "In a rapidly changing environment, new approaches to marketing are continuously being developed. Brown & Williamson encourages exploration of new ideas and technologies, as well as the adoption of new practices which enhance our marketing capability and are consistent with our philosophy of marketing to adults."

One thing not available on the Web site, however, is the 1-800 number with the amusing message. Nor is it available through AT&T's 1-800 directory service.

Given this corporate philosophy, the strategy behind the message on 1-800-578-7453 is a stroke of pure marketing genius. It skirts the age restriction by stating clearly that callers must be 21 or older to hear the love message. Yet the message employs the kind of reverse-logic humor made popular by shows like "South Park" and "The Simpsons" -- humor that's sure to appeal to new generations of cigarette smokers (still invaluable to tobacco companies as older generations die off). And talk about using "new ideas and technologies" to "enhance our marketing capability"! You couldn't look for a better demonstration of how grass-roots e-mail can spread the success of a marketing strategy.

Send it, and they will come -- especially if it only takes a minute and can be done at the office. Best of all, it doesn't look, sound, feel or smell like advertising. When I first called, I couldn't tell whether it was a serious message or a practical joke. Subtle advertising is effective advertising in a time when jaded consumers refer to themselves by their marketing demographic.

There's just one problem. Brown & Williamson denies that their prerecorded valentine has anything to do with promoting their cigarette brands. "When you stop and listen to the message, you think, Jeez, they didn't even put the brand name on the message," Smith told me. "Our policy is not to use telecommunications in any form to promote the brand. That's why we don't put the brand name on the phone, and we don't intend to," he added later.

But surely Brown & Williamson is Web-savvy enough to realize that it takes all of 30 seconds on a search engine to find out that the tobacco company that loves you also sells KOOL, Lucky Strike, GPC, Barclay and Misty brand cigarettes. Although most of the calls, according to Smith, were hang-ups, my guess is the 1-800 number was the biggest boon to Brown & Williamson cigarettes since James Dean smoked Lucky Strikes in "Rebel Without a Cause." While Brown & Williamson denies such motivations, this has surely been a wake-up call for them as well as other tobacco giants. It's just a matter of time before we see even more silly 1-800 messages and Dancing Hamster sites featuring Joe Camel.

As for Brown & Williamson's passionate love affair with its callers, it's fated to end abruptly in a couple of weeks, with a new message in its place. "Hopefully it'll be another humorous message," Smith said, "but sometimes humor is in the eye of the beholder."

By Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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