Partying With Salem: Soft Lights, Hip Hop, and Free Cigarettes

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Two months ago, I received in my mailbox at New York University an invitation for myself and two guests to go to a party, "spinning hip hop and R&B."

My friends and I, being broke college students, were curious and excited at the prospect of a free party.

We arrived at Bar 85, a lounge on the lower West Side of Manhattan. There were velvet curtains, a masseuse, a portrait artist, hip hop - and free cigarettes.

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We had not stepped five feet into the room when we were greeted enthusiastically by a Salem promoter.

We'd missed the free champagne, he said. But we were in time to receive a pack, or two, or three, of Salem cigarettes. Then he ran down the list of "hot" upcoming Salem soirees to which we would be invited.

As we settled into a soft couch, we were energetically encouraged to fill out a questionnaire. "What brand do you currently smoke? Would you change brands? How many cigarettes do you smoke a day? What kind of music do you listen to?"

Huh? What did the type of music we liked have to do with smoking? A lot, it seems.

As the tobacco companies face a growing wall of advertising restrictions, music is emerging as a major marketing tool.

The industry is sponsoring a growing slate of parties, music festivals, and concerts as a way to attract a more precise group of young adults, like me, than can be reached by billboard or print ads, and to provide them with free samples.

Since November 1997, Salem parties - aimed at hip hop, latin, R&B, reggae, and calypso fans - have been held at least once a month as part of a test campaign in New York City.

Music. Champagne. Soft lights. Gifts. "It was like they were trying to romance us," said one friend of the Salem soiree.

"The object is to get our product into the hands of adult smokers," says Richard Williams, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds, the maker of Salem. "I'm not going to try and sugar coat that." The goal, he says, is to revive a brand of cigarettes declining in market share.

Tobacco officials say these events are not for underage smokers. Most parties are held in age-restricted bars or clubs, although some concerts are open to a wide range of ages.

This summer's 42-city H.O.R.D.E festival, sponsored by the manufacturer of Kool cigarettes, is attracting young adults with an ear for alternative and rock bands. Tickets cost about $30, but at the Brown & Williamson tent, free CDs, decorated with the "B-Kool" logo, are given away.

"Brown & Williamson," says spokesman Steve Kottak, "has a long heritage in music festivals.... It's an opportunity to have a presence at the event and at the same time support new talent."

But the tobacco connection is prompting soul-searching among some musicians and promoters. New York City music entrepreneur Donald Franois, who was also invited to a Salem party, objects to this form of promotion."They [tobacco companies] are using the same tactics we use for promotion. It's direct. Like here, take this. Boom, they respond," he says, upset that some of his industry peers agree to promote cigarettes.

Leslie Nuchow, an aspiring New York musician, rejected a Virginia Slims offer to compete for the opening act in "Woman Thing," a 10-city concert tour two years ago. Ms. Nuchow says Philip Morris used struggling musicians who needed money to sell a life-threatening habit to young women. "Music is one of the most powerful cultural forces in the world," she says.

Philip Morris spokeswoman Tara Carraro disagrees, "Music isn't going to influence behavior, but hopefully when they [adults] choose a brand, they will remember that Virginia Slims brought them a great evening."

Nuchow has participated in what she calls "a positive alternative," the Virginia SLAM concert. For the last two years in April, the SLAM concert in New York City has combined top female musicians with a health and antitobacco message for young women.

Florida's teen antismoking campaign is taking a similar marketing approach. From July 31 to Aug. 10, a Truth Train will travel the state as part of a series of rallies and concerts.

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