Smokescreen: Why R.J. Reynolds Plastered Williamsburg on its Camel Blues

Home Brooklyn Life Smokescreen: Why R.J. Reynolds Plastered Williamsburg on its Camel Blues
The Williamsburg design on promotional Camel Blue Packs (Image courtesy The Ballast NYC)
The Williamsburg design on promotional Camel Blue packs (Image courtesy The Ballast NYC)

By Elisabeth Anderson

Some Brooklyn residents and politicians have had—forgive us—smoke coming out of their ears the past two months over a promotion involving Camel Blue cigarettes.

The reason?  The pack included an illustration of the brand’s iconic camel on what looks to be Kent Avenue, in front of a Williamsburg Bridge backdrop, with Williamsburg itself as a selling point.  “Some call it the most famous hipster neighborhood,” the package copy begins.  “But it’s not about hip.  It’s about breaking free.”

City officials, echoing perhaps the toughest-on-tobacco mayoral administration ever—the City Council voted last week to expand the city smoking ban to parks, beaches, and Times Square—were furious, citing yet another attempt to make smoking seem cool in the eyes of the young and impressionable.   Health Commissioner Thomas Farley led the charge to block the cigs from city stores, telling the Daily News “I am particularly disturbed that this effort to recruit young smokers exploits the name and image of Brooklyn’s vibrant Williamsburg neighborhood.”  The packs did live to see the light of bodega shelf days, however, although the promotion itself ended at the end of the January.

But one question remains unanswered: Why Williamsburg?

The Williamsburg packs, it turns out, were born of a larger promotional campaign by R.J. Reynolds, the nation’s second-largest tobacco company.  The campaign, known as The Break Free Adventure, was built around the notion that the camel had left the pack and gone of a journey around the country.  The promotion was launched exclusively online in September, behind the wall of the Camel consumer website.  The Ink tried to gain access to poke around, but was denied.  In the increasingly-regulated world of consumer-facing tobacco marketing, Camel requires third-party age verification from any consumer who opts in to joining the virtual Camel community.

Consumers with access, meanwhile, were encouraged via e-mail and direct mail—there was no point of sale or print advertising for this particular campaign—to guess the camel’s destinations.  Each guess, right or wrong, represented an entry into a sweepstakes for one million airline miles, the winner of which was announced in November.

“The primary driver of the promotion was to drive traffic to the site,” David Howard, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds, explained to The Ink. “Which it did, successfully.”

R.J. Reynolds then expanded the promotion to the product side, announcing ten locations that would be featured on packs of Camel Blues, formerly Camel Lights.  The Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which was signed into law last year to give the Food and Drug Administration regulatory oversight in the industry, bars tobacco companies from using words like “light,” “mild,” and “medium” to describe their products.

Packs of Camel Blues featuring locations were shipped nationally in December and January.  All the locations—including Austin, Tx., Las Vegas, and Route 66—had an element of ‘cool.’ They’ll remain on shelves until they sell out, but distribution has ended.  The goal, Howard said, was to pick “culturally unique locations that we thought would be entertaining for adult tobacco consumers.”

To Howard’s knowledge, R.J. Reynolds did not send scouts to the selected locations to conduct research.  No matter.  The Williamsburg pack copy tried to capture the neighborhood’s mood: “It’s about last call, a sloppy kiss goodbye and a solo saunter to a rock show in an abandoned building.  It’s where a tree grows.  It’s Camel in the Williamsburg corner of Brooklyn.”

That copy was cringe-worthy to some Williamsburg residents.  “I don’t know whether to be offended as a smoker, a Williamsburger, or a human being,” wrote The Brooklyn Paper’s Andy Campbell last month.  It’s “…as if Camel marketers went to the Wikipedia, looked up ‘hipster,’ and then hired my grandfather to design a cigarette box.”

The packaging also angered those who care about kids.  Yes, they say, Camel was within its rights to create the Williamsburg pack.  But to some there was no denying that the packaging would have a visual appeal to any child who saw it in a store, or any teen whose friend had a pack. “I don’t like it,” Jeff Ewusi, A high school guidance counselor, told NY1. “Not around this neighborhood, with plenty of schools close in this area and students flooding this neighborhood everyday, hitting the corner stores.  It’s definitely not a positive.”

It’s a concern that resonates in a particular way at a time when statewide anti-tobacco spending is down, Mayor Bloomberg’s efforts notwithstanding.  According to Tobacco Free Kids, an advocacy group, New York will only be spending $58.4 million on tobacco prevention in fiscal year 2011, a paltry 23 percent of the $254.3 million the Centers for Disease Control are allotting to the state this year.  The funds are the result of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, whereby the tobacco companies agreed to settle with the states in the form of annual funding toward anti-tobacco initiatives, especially youth smoking prevention; states have only used a portion of their funds in the years since toward the ends they were intended.

Meanwhile, smoking has declined in the United States in the past ten years.  The reported smoking rate has hovered around 20 to 21% since 2005 according to the Centers for Disease Control, a drop from as high as a Gallup-reported 28% earlier in the last decade.  The Bedford Report, which provides analyst research on equities, reported last week that American demand for cigarettes is down 4.7% from last year; still, revenues have stayed flat as tobacco companies continue to increase their product prices.  Camel held 19 percent of the coveted “ASU30” bracket, or adult smokers under 30, in 2010, according to the publicly available ReynoldsAmerican Investor Day presentation from November 2010.  Forty-four percent of its buyers were under 30, and the brand saw 10% of tobacco consumers in that category switch from another brand to Camel.

As far as the Break Free Adventure is concerned, the remaining packs are selling out as we speak, and the campaign will likely fade from the Brooklyn consciousness over time.  The camel has left the borough.

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