Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

How a tobacco company infiltrates the youth culture, no matter what that pending settlement deal may say.

Legal Times  March 30, 1998, Monday


It's Thursday night at the Black Cat. Drums pounding behind her, the band's singer swings to the front, shaking her long hair and brandishing her bass guitar to the cheers of her fans. The young, fashionably dressed crowd presses forward to get close to the stage. This is the group they have come to see-Dead Girls and Other Stories, a local favorite in Washington's alternative rock scene. Framing the stage is a large green banner emblazoned with the cryptic words: " B Kool H.O.R.D.E. Band to Band Combat."

Outsiders may need a translation. The combat is among five local bands. The prize is a chance to play at H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere), one of the nation's major rock festivals.

"B Kool" is the slogan of Kool cigarettes, the sponsor of the contest.

The Dead Girls ultimately take the night. They are a young rock and roll band that sings about breaking free of authority. But this is their chance to break into the big time-even if they have to accept cigarette money to do it. Nobody in the band smokes, says bass player Melissa Lou, but "if you want to play, you have to be sponsored by somebody."

Even as Congress and the Clinton administration struggle to negotiate a massive settlement with the tobacco industry, companies such as Brown & Williamson, which makes Kools, are continuing to use the same controversial promotional and marketing strategies that the government is trying to curb.

Kool's sponsorship of the rock festival, anti-tobacco advocates say, flies in the face of the industry's claim that it wants to stop underage smoking. Although tobacco companies insist that they don't market to teen-agersadmission to the Black Cat that evening was restricted to people 21 or overmany say that attaching cigarettes to rock concerts still sends a powerful message to youth.

"They are trying to impress upon young people that it is cool to smoke this particular brand by tying it to rock and roll, " says Rep. Henry Waxman (DCalif.), a long-time anti-smoking crusader. "It's hard to think that it won't appeal to underage potential smokers. That's one reason why its important to spell out what the tobacco companies can't do in the way of advertising- because they will just figure out another way around it."

In fact, under the version of the agreement that the tobacco companies are pushing on Capitol Hill, this type of marketing venture would be prohibited. A draft of the June 1997 agreement between the tobacco industry and state attorneys general would explicitly "ban sponsorship, including concerts and sporting events, in the name, logo, selling message of a tobacco brand" and " prohibit direct and indirect payments to 'glamorize' tobacco use in media appealing to minors, including recorded and live performances of music." 'UP TO ITS OLD TRICKS'

The Food and Drug Administration attempted to impose tight standards on tobacco industry marketing in 1996, says Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Victor Zonana, but the rules were stalled in court by the tobacco industry. The FDA is currently appealing the decision before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.

Zonana is not surprised that a cigarette company is using a rock concert to promote its products.

"It sounds like the industry is up to its old tricks: luring young people into a lifetime of addiction, " says Zonana. "It's got to stop."

Brown & Williamson is perfectly within its rights, says spokesman Mark Smith, since the proposed ban is a voluntary trade that the tobacco industry would make with the government in exchange for some form of liability protection from lawsuits.

Until a deal is made, he says, Brown & Williamson can continue promoting its cigarettes in any legal fashion. Smith notes that he had not known of Kool's sponsorship of the rock festival until told of it by a reporter.

Stephen Kottak, the Brown & Williamson communications official who is working directly on the Kool promotion, did not return repeated telephone calls. "We are wholeheartedly behind efforts to reduce youth smoking, but something called the U.S. Constitution comes into play in regard to communicating with our customers, " Smith says.

But exactly who, and how old, those customers are is not always clear, as a closer look at the H.O.R.D.E concert reveals.

In Kool's "Band to Band Combat, " rock groups throughout the nation that do not have record deals compete in clubs to appear in the H.O.R.D.E. festival when it comes to their town.


Brown & Williamson admits only people older than 21 into the clubs, where they can find a variety of free Kool promotional products, including phone cards, compact discs, and packs of cigarettes.

In order to get the products, audience members have to provide identification and fill out a form giving personal information. That information is used by Brown & Williamson for marketing and grass-roots political activities, according to a company spokesman. Philip Morris officials say it does the same thing with its promotions.

But though the marketing is ostensibly targeted at adults, it inevitably attracts teen-agers, say tobacco control advocates. Minors could become aware of the concert through ads like the one in the Washington City Paper, which touted the special concert at the Black Cat club near the trendy U Street district. The ad bore a surgeon general's warning.

"The kids see the advertising, they think this thing is cool, they aspire to it, they aspire to entry into the club, and into the age group as well, " says Bill Novelli, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "It's a kind of forbidden fruit sort of appeal."

The H.O.R.D.E. festival itself is open to people of all ages. According to Staci Rothchild of Flair Communications Agency, which is doing the promotion for Brown & Williamson, Kool will set up a tent at the festival to give away items such as Kool cup holders, Kool headbands, and Kool compact discs. Only those 21 and older will qualify.

The tent will be covered in Kool advertising-a point that could undermine the age restriction, Rothchild concedes.

Even though the products are intended to be given only to people at least 21 years old, "it is hard to say it keeps the message within the 21 and over smoking community, " she says. "But we can try, I guess."

Dave Frey, the H.O.R.D.E. festival organizer, takes the view that the benefits of the sponsorship far outweigh the effects of the advertising. He says that while he has not yet seen or approved the plans for what the Kool tent will look like, it will be just one advertisement among hundreds that already cover stadiums.

"You can't even go to the bathroom without seeing signs, " he says, pointing out that the Nissan Pavilion, one of the sites being considered for the D.C.- area concert, has an advertisement right in its name. No advertisements of any kind will be allowed on the stage, he says.

The Kool tent, he says, will share space with tents put up by Sony, Greenpeace, Planned Parenthood, and Students for a Free Tibet.


Frey emphasizes that Brown & Williamson's sponsorship of local battles of the bands provides an important service to artists, by giving national exposure to bands without record contracts. Besides the chance to play at the festival and a $1, 000 cash prize, Kool will distribute 50, 000 copies of a CD featuring the sponsored bands' music.

"There are so few opportunities for a band to get a break now, and I am happy to be able to offer another opportunity for a band to get a break, " says Frey. This is the second year that Kool has sponsored the Band to Band part of the festival. Frey says Kool is the largest single sponsor of the festival.

Kool's sponsorship of the winning bands does not end with the chance to play at the H.O.R.D.E. festival. According to the contract that bands participating in the contest must sign, Kool can continue to do its cigarette promotions at 10 of the band's concerts, can use the band's name and picture in advertising, and will hold the rights to the band's song on the Kool CD for five years. And of course, the band is prohibited from endorsing another brand of cigarettes.

This is the reality of today's music world, says Melissa Lou, the bass player for Dead Girls and Other Stories, the band that won the contest in Washington. To make it in the recording business, she says, "you have to become part of corporate America."

Dead Girls guitarist Nancy Tarr says that while the band had previously questioned whether it would accept tobacco industry sponsorship, as a small unsigned band in a recording industry dominated by a few large companies the members felt they had little choice. To take a moral stance about your sponsorship is impossible, she says.

"It is almost unavoidable because you never know who the parent company of a label is, " says Tarr, who works as a paralegal in the legal department of a D.C.- area company. "You don't know where they are investing their money or which political parties they are funding."

Until recently, tobacco companies have stayed out of rock and roll sponsorship. Last year, Philip Morris ran its own festival trying to attract women to its Virginia Slims brand with the "Woman Thing" rock and roll tour. This promotion resulted in a backlash against the company when the singer it originally picked to go on the tour dropped out and became an anti-smoking activist. The singer, Leslie Nuchow, started her own anti-smoking rock festival, "Virginia Slam!" (See "Founding an Anti-Tobacco Rock Festival, " above.)

Last year, U.S. Tobacco was reportedly forced to remove its advertising, though not its sponsorship, from a rock tour after drawing fire from anti- tobacco activists who accused the company of targeting minors.

For the current Brown & Williamson promotion to occur in the midst of the tobacco settlement negotiations has raised eyebrows within the tobacco community.

"I find it a bizarre thing to be doing now, because of the heightened sensitivity to tobacco and kids, " says a source who does public relations for another tobacco company.

The motive behind the promotion is to expand into new markets, says Rothchild of Flair Communications, "to skew younger, not so urban."

Kool, a menthol cigarette, is smoked mostly by African-Americans and has sponsored jazz and blues music in the past. By targeting the alternative rock crowd, says Rothchild, Kool is trying to attract "younger, hipper, cooler audiences. They build their audience by doing this, by exposing themselves to different groups of people."

Even some of the bands and clubs participating in the promotion found it surprising that Kool was a sponsor. Dante Ferrando, who owns the Black Cat club, notes that Kool is one of the lowest-selling cigarettes at his club, which has a mostly young and white audience.

The fact that the concert was sponsored by a cigarette company did not particularly bother him, Ferrando says, although some bands refused to participate because of it.

"A number of the bands were fairly tongue-in-cheek about it and thought it was horrendous, and at the same time they were willing to do it, " says Ferrando. He said that during the concert, the bass player for one of the bands who was dressed in a white doctor's coat issued a faux surgeon general's warning to the audience.

That band lost the contest.

Founding an Anti-Tobacco Rock Festival

At the beginning of 1997, New York-based singer-songwriter Leslie Nuchow received an offer that sounded too good to be true: A new record company geared toward women performers was offering to sign her to its label, Woman Thing Music. The company's talent scout told her the company would promote her heavily, even putting listening stations in bars and clubs so that people could sample her music.

But as Nuchow soon learned, nothing comes without a price. Woman Thing Music, it turned out, was a promotional arm of Virginia Slims, the Philip Morris brand of cigarettes marketed to women. The CD of her music could only be " purchased" by people who forked over two empty cigarette packs, she says. "That was the clincher for me. This was product-to-product linkage, direct association. It became clear to me that the target audience was young women, " says Nuchow. "They wanted to use my music to sell their harmful product to young women."

Not content with simply turning the deal down, Nuchow vowed to take on Virginia Slims directly. She decided to create a woman-oriented rock festival that would, according to its organizers, "send a powerful message to the tobacco industry that they are neither wanted nor needed in the music world." Nuchow gathered a few dozen other artists and musicians and formed Virginia Slam!

"Our vision was to offer up an opportunity for struggling musicians to be heard outside of the context of the tobacco industry or any big business that hurts humanity, and to send a strong message to artists and fans that we don't have to rely on big business to create opportunities for us, " says Nuchow. "We can create opportunities for ourselves."

Virginia Slam! held its first concert last June. The event received so much attention that the Indigo Girls, a popular female duet, offered to headline Virginia Slam! Two. The concert is set for April 22 in New York. All profits from the concert will go to women's health and youth services organizations. Nuchow says that now that her organization has taken on tobacco, "every year we will pick an industry that hurts the earth or people and slam them with music."

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