Lucky Strikes Back

A tobacco company takes to the streets to reassure marginalized smokers

It's Tuesday morning, and it's looking to be one of those hot, muggy August summer afternoons. It's the kind of day when a smoker, exiled to the unforgiving heat, would yearn for some cool refreshment. Or so hopes the ragtag bicycle outfit known as the Lucky Strike Force, which gathers at the City Hall reflection pool. The Strike Force consists of two teams of three -- two males and one female. Most of them are college buddies who played sports together. Running promotions is a way to earn money until they can find positions as high school coaches, but they put on an admirable show for their latest employer, Brown & Williamson tobacco.

"Smoking's bad, mmm-kay," Aaron Horstmann says, mimicking the counselor Mr. Mackey from South Park, as he removes from a trailer a bicycle outfitted with a wiggling dashboard hula dancer on the handlebar. Like most of the fellows here, he wears his baseball cap backward. You can't spend 20 seconds with these guys without picturing them hugging each other in beer-soaked shirts singing a round of "Louie, Louie."

"What we're doing is approaching smokers in the downtown area and offering them cold towels to cool off, basically because it sucks that smokers have been exiled to the outdoors to have to smoke in the heat," explains the project's very tattooed leader, Kae Bruni. They deliver 200 to 300 towels a day, "and that's a lot of cooling-off relief."

Bike courier Dwayne Adams gets a wet rag for his habit.
Deron Neblett
Bike courier Dwayne Adams gets a wet rag for his habit.

To do this, a scout rides around downtown looking for smokers and, after finding a clump of lonely puffers, radios back their coordinates to the other two riders, who are carting a cooler on a tandem bicycle. When they arrive at the target location, the team hands smokers a damp washcloth, followed by a card with the message "Lucky loves you" on the front and a warning on the back that cigarettes contain carbon monoxide.

"We freeze [the cloths] overnight," Bruni says. "They're individually wrapped so they stay sanitary and clean, and we offer them with tongs, just like in first class." Also, the team members are required to wear helmets and obey all traffic laws, just like any other vehicle on the street. That means no riding on sidewalks and no going the wrong direction down one-way streets. Most important, they approach only smokers, and then only those who appear at least 27 years of age. As Bruni puts it: "We're not promoting smoking. We're just rewarding you for being a smoker."

And with that, they're off: through two red lights and down the sidewalk, heading against traffic.

Pretend you're an advertising agency that has just taken on a tobacco manufacturer as a client. You've seen how tobacco companies are accused of reverse psychology when they say only adults should smoke. You've read the editorials claiming that Philip Morris's public service announcements, in which the company tells teens to resist peer pressure, actually send the message that smoking is cool. What's worse, you can't even use cartoons or billboards anymore. So how exactly do you go about promoting a product that will automatically bring criticism to your client if you succeed? Rather than futilely attempting to recast themselves as reformed antismokers, the folks at Brown & Williamson decided to try an irreverent grassroots approach, which takes the company's message directly to the only people left who can't complain: the smokers themselves.

"We're not trying to get nonsmokers to begin smoking. We're not trying to get current smokers to increase their consumption. What we're trying to do is highlight these smoking groups in a one-on-one sort of way," says Steve Kottak, manager of public affairs at Brown & Williamson. "We're a 12- or 13-share company, and there's an 88 percent market share of adults to go after, so that's our focus."

The obsequious marketing strategy first appeared in a highly successful gag phone message on the Brown & Williamson information line, which (after telling callers under 21 to hang up) had an announcer gush over sappy, orchestrated music, "We're a giant corporation, and you make us feel like a little kitten. Thank you, lover." The "customer service number," 1(800)LSTRIKE, was printed on only Lucky Strike packaging, but tickled callers distributed it through e-mail, which resulted in as many as 14,000 calls a day. Brown & Williamson took its subversive sense of humor to the streets.

"We're trying to have a little fun with it. We're not taking it too seriously," Kottak says.

"Mission: Cool Off" arrives at a well-known courier hangout at Milam and Capitol, and the smokers are out in packs.

"Lucky loves you, man," Horstmann says as he tosses a washcloth from the cooler as if it were a cold brew.

Matthew Snyder, 26, seems surprised as he catches the pack, but is happy to play along. "It's cold, and we're smokers, so they're cool with the couriers," Snyder says with a laugh as he playfully wipes his fingers. This is the demographic the campaign is targeting: adult smokers under 30 -- or ASU 30s, as the marketing folks at Brown & Williamson refer to them -- old enough to meet the age requirement, but young enough to appreciate the campaign's audacity.

Dwayne Adams, balding even though he can't be much older than 30, also has fun with the cloth, using it to buff his head. He's familiar with the Strike Force, which stopped by last week. "A couple of the guys washed their bikes down with them," he says.

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