/ 4 September 2001

Cigarette industry goes underground

Cypress Hill were the most recent big-name band to perform without pre-publicity at secret venues across South Africa. The events were organised as a below-the-line marketing activity of cigarette brand Lucky Strike.

In April laws came into force forbidding tobacco companies from direct advertising and sponsoring tobacco-branded events. Lucky Strike has been a leader in taking the battle underground.

Simon Millson, the corporate and regulatory affairs country manager for British American Tobacco South Africa, says the events allow it to stay within the law but create “excitement about the brand”.

“We’re not selling smoking to new or under-age smokers. But we do have a right to communicate with our consumers and we organise these events for this group,” he says.

The company, which claims it holds “over 90%” of the cigarette market in South Africa, includes brands such as Peter Stuyvesant, Rothmans, Dunhill, Benson & Hedges and Lucky Strike.

Since the middle of last year music lovers have signed up for secret gigs through the Internet and are told a day or two prior to the event where the event is being held. They are told who will be performing only when they arrive at the venue.

Alternative rock outfit The Violent Femmes played at a disused Johannesburg bakery in April and were followed by Britpop rockers Bush.

Wheatus, whose Teenage Dirtbag has became a mainstream anthem, performed at the Zwartkop airforce base in July.

The word has spread, with audiences growing from about 400 people for the first underground event to more than 2 000 for recent concerts.

Two weeks ago arguably the best of these gigs took place, first in an Iscor industrial warehouse on the outskirts of Pretoria and then at the Foreshore warehouse at the Culemborg centre in Cape Town.

Cypress Hill swaggered on to the stage, taking “hits from the bong”, running their nasally intoned “odes to mary jane” by an audience that, for the most part, rubbed their reddened eyes in disbelief at the band blazing up before their eyes.

They promised to be back (don’t they all) but it won’t be Lucky Strike paying their way next time.

“We definitely won’t be bringing any more international acts like Cypress Hill to South Africa,” Millson said. “There will still be music events for our smokers but they will be smaller, more contained events, likely to feature local DJs and bands,” he said.

Millson said the underground music events were part of an increasingly necessary below-the-line campaign for Lucky Strike.

“We’ve finished with the launch phase of the brand and want to steer away from these big events that attract huge publicity. We’re now looking to consolidate with smaller events.”

He says one of the reasons Lucky Strike has halted these kinds of events is because they are increasingly dubbed “Lucky Strike events”, a tag uncomfortably close to the outlawed tobacco-branded sponsorship.

“And they aren’t Lucky Strike events. We’re not trying to build our brand through these events, we’re only working on opening up channels of communication with our existing customers.”

Despite Millson’s contention, a room at the Cypress Hill event played looped clips of previous events, featuring sound bites of various twentysomething audience members gushing about how the brand had given them “the best time of their life”, with the “LS” emblem a giddy backdrop to every video scene.

“Why would we waste money on trying to seduce non-smokers to our events? We don’t use this as a platform to sell our brand and make every effort to exclude non-smokers from these events,” Millson says.

He claims that every person who registers for the events (through the Internet or at the venue) must provide certain details, including whether they are smokers, before being told whether they will be allotted tickets.

The screening is supposed to ascertain whether the aspirant concert-goer fits into the profile of the particular brand, but Millson concedes that many lie in order to attend.

So, what then of the other brands?

For Dunhill, Millson says there will be a number of jazz events and whisky nights, for Rothmans there will be night-club evenings targeting those fitting the brand’s profile, mid-twenties smokers typically in the Western Cape who enjoy clubbing.

These below-the-line marketing activities entail considerable expense, however.

Those who attended the Lucky Strike music events weren’t required to pay to see the bands. Their only expenses were alcohol and whatever stimulants they paid for beforehand.

Millson declines to say how much was spent on securing the services of the major artists, flying them to South Africa and putting them up in plush hotels, paying for the venues, setting up the stage and sound equipment and paying the security, bar and other personnel.

“The amount we spent was well within Lucky Strike’s launch budget. As far as we’re concerned these bands provided us with good value for money,” he says.

Millson says the new tobacco laws actually helped provide funds for these music events as the cash previously used for traditional advertising has been diverted to the below-the-line budget.