No Spiffs, Bands or Butts

Goodbye, free smokes. Goodbye, free money. R.J. Reynolds quits the club scene.

Lisa Andris has just gone cold turkey, and she's suffering.

Her club, the Hi-Pointe Lounge, is no longer a Camel Club. "Oh God," she says despondently, "I always knew it would come to an end. Nothing like that lasts forever. I mean, six years."

It's almost as if there has been a death in the family. "I should put a black sheath around the building like they did at Capitol Records when George Harrison died," Andris laments. "I'm actually going to send them a card: 'Thanks for the memories.'"

Danny Hellman

Those memories are of a marketing program that provided Andris and more than 50 other area bars -- not to mention many hundreds across the United States -- with free Camel products and an annual stipend she spent to bring big-name music acts to the club.

The Camel Club program, a mainstay of nightlife nationwide since 1997, was laid to rest on April 2, the most prominent casualty of parent company R.J. Reynolds' shuttering of its Lifestyle Media Group, which managed all of the tobacco giant's promotional field-marketing activities. Gone is the avalanche of accoutrements Camel had provided to bars and smokers.

The clubs, to put it mildly, are jonesin'.

Camel Clubs were part of a vast campaign to reposition the cigarette in the minds of smokers. Before the program's kickoff, the brand was decidedly unhip. "The goal was to reposition Camel, to create brand awareness, because Camel at the time was perceived as Grandpa's cigarette," asserts an industry insider who declined to be identified in print. "They basically threw a bunch of money at totally gutting the image of Camel as far as how it's perceived."

And they did it in a big way. With an annual national budget of more than $10 million, Camel injected itself into every aspect of the smoking experience in bars, emblazoning all available surfaces with the brand's logo. Napkins, matches and ashtrays, once blank, now bore the Camel mark -- and were provided free of charge to participating businesses. In exchange, the bars agreed to sell only Camel smokes delivered by field reps. Vending machines, on the wane as a result of stiff laws prohibiting sales of tobacco to minors, were pulled; in their place sprouted behind-the-bar kiosks that stocked Camel products only.

This was a problem among brand loyalists in the beginning, says Andris, whose bar was one of the first to sign up with Camel. But not for long. "People got used to that real quick," she says. "At first it seemed like a real deterrent, but it wasn't. If somebody feels that strongly about it, they just walk across the street to buy a pack. It was well worth all the free goodies you got." Andris estimates that the free supplies added up to $6,000 to $7,000 annually.

"I'm going to have to do a cost analysis to figure all this out," chimes in Tom Gray, co-owner of the nightclub Velvet. He never had to before, he adds, because it was all free.

Cost analysis isn't the half of it. Explains Bob Krekeler, CEO of Mound City Industries Inc., one of the city's largest cigarette distributors: "The promotional companies would buy from someone like ourselves, and then they had their own people who would go out to these bars and make sure they got the product. The problem is that most of the bars are not large enough to get a direct shipment from a wholesaler."

Krekeler figures bar owners may now have to resort to either buying their smokes retail and reselling them (which is illegal) or picking them up at a wholesale warehouse.

"We'll be at liberty to buy any kind of cigarettes we want from any place we want, but that's more hassle for me -- an extra thing that I have to do every week now," Andris says. "Before, I'd get on the phone with Camel, order my cigarettes, and they'd bring them in."

They'd also deliver cash. The biggest perk of being a Camel Club was the money Camel simply gave to venues, the lion's share of which was spent to book and promote music acts that would otherwise have been too high-priced for the clubs. Last year, with part of the $9,000 she got from Camel, Andris funded the Hi-Pointe's annual Beatle Bob Birthday Bash. Previous funding also went to a Los Straitjackets/Big Sandy and His Fly-Right Boys double bill. With his allotment, Tom Gray booked big-name DJs Seb Fontaine, Tall Paul and Bad Boy Bill at Velvet. The Way Out Club brought in rockabilly legend Hasil Adkins. Camel funded 80 percent of the twice-yearly Washington Avenue Beat Festival, a brouhaha that brings top national and local electronic acts to a half-dozen clubs downtown.

Tom White, manager of the Complex, a gay dance club on Chouteau, says his club received $12,500 from Camel last year. "We had some really great talent throughout the years due to them. I would say thanks to the community for being there, through the Camel money. And I would lose my ass on every event, but since it was Camel's money, it wouldn't matter." White says he brought in, among others, singers Taylor Dayne, Ultra Nat and Sonique. For the Complex, he says, "it was five great years."

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