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Normally, a company wants maximum visibility for itself and its products when paying large amounts of money for advertisements and other promotional activities. So it is instructive to see that British American Tobacco (BAT) appears to be doing everything possible to hide its participation in an internet campaign to attract unwitting young consumers to bars and clubs where it promotes its cigarettes.
According to a leaked internal memo, BAT plans to invest £2.5 million (around $3.6 million) in building a new website (codenamed project Horeca) aimed at young people world wide. It appears BAT's aim is to promote Lucky Strike and State Express 555 brands to young smokers, at a time when many countries are banning tobacco advertising. BAT has admitted that a prototype site, City Gorilla, was started in January, featuring Poland. Choosing a country with among the best anti-tobacco laws in Europe was presumably deliberate, on the basis that if the technique works there, it will work anywhere. A less challenging second country, Belgium, was added in March.
Venues promoting and selling BAT cigarettes are given a prominent position on the site, which will not be linked to BAT or have any other obvious tobacco associations, and will appear to offer independent advice on night life. In fact, young web surfers will be directed to bars, clubs or restaurants where BAT cigarette brands are being handed out or promoted, which they can then be encouraged to take or buy. BAT wants favourable distribution or promotional deals with its brands' outlets, in return for giving them publicity on the site.
The memo shows that BAT is keen to conceal its intentions to promote cigarettes in apparently “neutral” venues. It states: “One perceived risk for the Horeca portal is the possible association with BAT and thus tobacco. A key success factor is developing a customer perception that the site is trendy and “happening”. Any adverse news articles from trade or consumer press may prove damaging. BAT, which denies that the initiative is underhand, or that it is a tobacco marketing tool, hopes to attract 600 000 unique users by the end of 2001 and to achieve a top 50 rating as a wap/mobile telephone content provider within 12 months.
The World Health Organization or progressive governments may one day find ways to stop sneaky promotions like this. Meanwhile, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), the UK's leading tobacco control organisation, has cleverly poked a stick in BAT's promotional wheel. In yet another demonstration of a huge transnational company getting it wrong, ASH discovered that BAT and its highly paid consultants had forgotten to register other, similarly named internet sites. So while BAT's test site is at www.citygorilla.com, ASH has put up a rival site cheerfully explaining the truth, and linked both to BAT and to health sites to explain just what is going on, at www.citygorilla.org.
The BAT site may also be used to collect personal details of smokers, for later direct marketing. BAT hopes to build a database of 40 000 smokers in its first year. This technique, known as “permission marketing”, represents another potential loophole in anti-tobacco legislation. And as we know, where there's a loophole, there's a tobacco company finding the best way through. (See also Ad Watch p 196—Ed)