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November, 2007

Targeted Marketing Gets Targeted

In bars and nightclubs in urban centers throughout the US, it’s a fairly common occurrence for a young, attractive college student and/or struggling actor to come up and ask if you’d like to participate in a short survey and, for your time, receive a free high-tech lighter—often one with a colored butane flame, entrancing LED light display, or—if you’re really lucky—one that doubles as a flashlight and keychain. This nighttime inquisitor is, in fact, a part-time employee of one of the large cigarette manufacturers, the questions are about your smoking habits (what brand, how often, etc.), and the high-tech lighter is meant to appeal to smokers, who would be the only ones swayed by a prize of such high value. In order to assure the legal smoking age of the patron (who, in theory should always be over the US legal smoking age of 18 in an alcohol-serving establishment where the legal age is 21), an electronic scanner is used to read said patron’s driving license, which also will give the company the card-holder’s mailing address. The cigarette company now knows that this person is an adult smoker, they know what brand they smoke and how often, and can now mail them targeted materials and/or coupons. So after a week or so when the ad materials come through the mail, if the legally-aged patron is interested, they can head on down to the nearest tobacco-offering establishment and try out the new product. Or if they’re not interested, they can place the materials in their nearest recycling container with all the other “junk mail” they received that day.

So, in the end, a harmless marketing campaign—a company got the word out about their product, someone got a free lighter, an aspiring thespian was able to pay her rent—and most importantly, no non- or underaged-smokers were approached for cigarette marketing. So, then really, there’s no reason for anyone to be upset or want to pursue any more regulation in this case, right? Oddly, no. The small college town of Greeley, Colorado recently proposed an ordinance to “prohibit the distribution of free tobacco and coupons for free tobacco at any public or private event or place.” It follows the lead of about 400 other local municipalities across the United States. The U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company, who utilizes this remaining form of highly-targeted tobacco marketing issued a press release about the Greeley ban that mentions the following: “Adults … should have the right to learn about and receive samples of tobacco products in what is already a carefully regulated environment … [we] firmly [believe] that our products are for adults only with absolutely no exceptions, and we go to great lengths to ensure that our products stay out of the hands of anyone underage.” To most, this would sound like a completely reasonable viewpoint, but, sadly, may just represent the next step of adaptation tobacco companies will have to undertake to communicate with adult smokers.

So what to do about it? No one’s quite figured that out yet. But keep in mind, while appealing to the powers-that-be with a sense of fairness can have iffy results, you should never underestimate the power of a free high-tech gadget.

- Evan D. Dashevsky

Tobacco International - November, 2007

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