Last Friday, I went with some friends to the CD release party of a local Austin, Tx band called Cat Scientist. I had never heard them before but I had been told that there would be free drinks and free CDs, and I was not disappointed. Upon arrival we were given two drink tickets worth $4 each at the bar and were quick to use them. Then we went to for the free CDs. That’s when I noticed the event was sponsored by Camel cigarettes. In order to get the free CD, you had to fill out a survey about your favorite brand of cigarette. In exchange you got the free CD… and a free pack of Camels.
I quit smoking last year, at the advice of my doctor. I’d developed a terrible hacking cough that he told me wouldn’t go away until I quit completely. I hit rock bottom when I was coughing so violently that I could no longer smoke through the pain. I finally gave it up. And almost as soon as I did, my breathing returned to normal. Since then, I have allowed myself to bum a smoke here or there, usually in social situations, but not to buy a pack for myself. And all was fine and dandy, until Camel put that free pack of cigarettes in my hand.
They scanned our IDs with what looked like handheld barcode readers, I assume to verify that we’re of smoking age, but more likely to generate marketing statistics and mailing lists. I knew it was a marketing stunt, and probably a tax writeoff, but I rationalized that it would be wasteful, even rude, not to smoke those free cigarettes. When the box was finally emptied Wednesday night, I threw it away and vowed not to let Camel buy me back so easily.
Thursday night I found myself downtown again, on Austin’s famous 6th Street. Block after block of pool halls, shot bars and dance clubs. My colleagues and I didn’t intend much barhopping, we mearly went down there for dinner and a couple of afterwork drinks. Traffic was thicker than usual, due to this weekend’s football game between Ohio University and the University of Texas. 40,000 OU fans have flooded into Austin this week in support of their team. Add that to the 40,000 UT fans representing the home team, and that’s a lot of roudy jocks chugging beer and shouting fight songs!
While we’re sitting there, a guy walks over and starts making smalltalk. A few seconds later, he’s pulling free packs of cigarettes out of a backpack he’s carrying. Sure enough, he’s from Camel. He asks to scan our IDs with a similar handheld device, hands us our free packs and moves on to the next group. I wanted to say no, or to throw them in the garbage, but they were free!
How did they find me? I wondered. How did they track me down? Did they have a crack team of ninja marketers, lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce on me with more cigarettes whenever I tried to quit? That’s when I saw the genius of it. Regardless of the outcome of the game, 80,000 mostly college age football fans will jam 6th St. this weekend, drinking and rioting, and operatives of Camel will be right there, stealthily moving in and out of the crowd, handing out hundreds, perhaps thousands, of free packs of cigarettes.
I would never propose that Camel shouldn’t have the right to sponsor CD release parties or target sporting events for marketing campaigns. And I don’t deny the many opportunities they gave me to exercise self-responsibility. That’s the beauty of ninja marketing. A small army of deceptively cool college kids, paid generously to mingle and barhop, can market directly to the target demographic. The point is that cigarettes sell themselves. All they need to do is get you started.