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."
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.
"They're just following the trends," Leo Garcia says as he watches, unamused, from a distance. He's seen similar campaigns in bars, where representatives pass out free samples or trade two packs of their brand for the one you happen to be smoking. Bars offer some welcome cover to the tobacco companies because of the age requirement.
"Maybe in the wintertime they'll come out with cups of hot chocolate or something," Snyder suggests.
In fact, they already have. It was called "Mission: Coffee," and the ploy earned Brown & Williamson's advertising company the title Guerrilla Marketers of the Year from BrandWeek magazine.
"Mission: Cool Off" appears less useful to its target audience. Most of the smokers have already pocketed the packages, or have clasped them beneath their armpits, as if holding the towels for the first trash can inside the building. Charlotte Porter pinches the corner of her towel like a dead fish. "It's very thoughtful," she says halfheartedly, though she admits this is the first time she's ever been rewarded for smoking.
With this location tapped, the happy squad mounts its bikes and heads off for the Pennzoil building across the street. The project leader, Mike Stovall, uses the opportunity to reiterate the team's adherence to all traffic laws. "[The police] don't want anyone riding on the sidewalks anymore," he says as one of the team members attempts to hop the curb a few yards ahead.
"We feel for you guys. Lucky loves you!" the cyclist shouts as he distributes towels to more unimpressed bystanders at the new location.
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"I guess the tobacco companies have to sell their cigarettes," says Janine, who refuses to give her last name. The washcloth sits next to her, unopened. "I don't think it changes anything, other than the fact that it's cute."
The campaign does seem to have tapped into an underground discontent: that smokers just can't get a break -- unless it's in the sweltering heat. "We have to stand out here in the sun, no shade or anything in the afternoons, and we're not accommodated at all," says Margie Callihan, who refers to antismokers as Nazis.
With all the smokers in possession of a cool, damp rag, the two remaining Strike Force members climb back on their bikes and wait for the scout to radio in the next set of coordinates. The team has more than 200 towels to distribute today, and they ain't gettin' any colder. Once the bikers have gone, the smokers return to their conversations and cigarettes, as if this were simply a small deviation from their routine. In the end, the true measure of the campaign's success will be determined by how this legally marginalized and very disgruntled group responds. Will smokers reward the folks who finally recognize them as rebels who need reassurance?
"It's all publicity," says Natarsha Fennie, who sees no difference between Lucky's in-your-face tactics and Philip Morris's don't-use-our-product approach. "I get the same message either way."