By Jeff Balke
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Robert Amass, a bartender at Catbirds, shows off his new Camel Zippo lighter in its case. "That's real pewter. I just got this one. They got all kinds of Zippos."
It goes further than that. In a moment of self-analysis, he glances down, then reveals: "All my clothes say either liquor or beer or cigarettes on them, or the bar name."
Amass's loyalty has not been bought only with clothes, lighters and cigarettes, but with the funds for the advertisements that kept his club competitive. "It didn't really matter what I smoked before, but now I get Camels free. Even when I buy a pack, usually I'll buy Camels. Camel kind of saved this place."
Camel has been busy saving places -- bars -- around Houston. Salvation is also available from the competition, Marlboro. The dueling cigarette companies offer financial support in return for clear and complete rights to slap their logo on pretty much everything inside those bars, from the full-sized wall murals down to the drink stirrers.
Over the past year, tobacco money has eclipsed alcohol money in helping Houston bars pay for advertising, even providing bar supplies and paying bands. Deprived of traditional advertising venues, the tobacco industry has focused on bars and clubs to fill the air with their brand names. The glorification of the connection between music, bar patrons and smoking has been encapsulated in tobacco advertising aimed at club customers.
Camel was first with "The Hard Pack" -- ads intended to associate cartoon camels with musicians. These camels dressed like musicians and carried instruments, played pool, drove around and smoked a lot. Next came the direct marketing: Kamel Reds were sold directly in special display cases in bars.
Marlboro has joined in, and the two companies have divided up Houston-area bars, providing napkins, matches, coasters, advertising, full wall murals and even obtaining tobacco sales licenses for the bars.
Of course, what bar owners view as a life saver is seen in a different light by many on the anti-tobacco side.
Other brands have joined the hunt as well. Kool has sponsored the Kool Jazz Festival in New Orleans for years and now sponsors the traveling H.O.R.D.E. Festival. Phillip Morris even started a record label called "Woman Thing" to release recordings by the soap-opera star, Virginia Slims endorser and attempted pop-singer crossover Martha Byrne. How could they refuse a smoking spokesperson with a name pronounced "burn"?
The local band Moses Guest got involved with the Kool H.O.R.D.E. promotions when they won a "Band to Band Combat" competition and were allowed to play in a slot for unsigned bands. James Edwards, the drummer, sees sponsorship as a necessary evil. "You can pick your poison. It could have been Jack Daniels, Kool, the milk industry."
The band received $1,000, T-shirts, an advertising budget for its next ten shows and, as Edwards sees it, had to do essentially nothing in return except fly a Kool banner. "They've done a lot of good for us."
The tobacco companies have made a few offers to people who refused them. Salem made a mistake by buying advertising rights on Richard Marx's South Asia tour without his knowledge. Marx followed this by coming out on stage wearing a "Salem sucks" T-shirt.
Woman Thing made a bad move when they offered a deal to Leslie Nuchow. They had to explain to her a few times that her CD on their "label" would be available only to consumers who had sent in two cigarette coupons. She didn't seem to understand. After rejecting the offer, she was inspired to initiate the "Virginia Slam" concert series, which has grown to feature groups such as the Indigo Girls.
"No matter what they say about targeting to adults, they know that young women go to hear music in much larger numbers than older women. If a person has not started smoking by the time they are 19, there is a 90 percent chance that they will never smoke," she says.
Tommy Bryant, a bartender at Instant Karma, sees the same thing in the club. "They're not going into a market where the people are 30 years old; they're going where the kids are 18 or 19 and dumping free cigarettes in their lap."
But the booking agents and bartenders are, for the most part, very happy to have the financial support. Art Baez, booking agent at Instant Karma, can't imagine being in business without it. "The clubs that are alive right now are the ones that have cigarette sponsors. We don't have to buy cups, napkins, matches, coasters, and we get free advertising on the Camel Page." The "Camel Page" and various Marlboro pages appear in the Houston Press and many other newspapers and magazines, giving an advantage to clubs that agree to sponsorship.
Baez sees the tobacco companies as making a simple decision to go after one of their last potential markets. "I think they're just looking to associate smoking with being cool, so they do it where most people think they are cool, out at clubs."
Camel has contracted KBA Marketing, a Chicago-based company, to handle all the details of the deals with bars. KBA even puts out its own magazine, Sweater, which is "free in cool places." Sweater provides articles about music and a guide to clubs in various cities [the same "cool places" that have signed Camel-cigarette promotion contracts with KBA]. A survey/sweepstakes in a recent issue of Sweater asks questions such as, "Do you smoke?" and "Are you currently a full-time student? If so, which level? High school? College? Grad school?"