Residence K and its indirect promotion of tobacco products may be legal, but these marketing tactics present a moral problem because of how effective they are, said Deborah Arnott, the chief executive of ASH.
"If you look at what's happened to smoking rates here [in the UK], where we've had a complete ban on advertising, they've gone down much faster than in the rest of Europe, where some of these tactics are still allowed to go ahead," she said.
These spinout brands attract people to a venue and then aggressively market their cigarette brands. This is done with logo advertising as well as by handing out stylized lighters and hiring women dressed in cigarette-packaging colors to actively engage attendees. Mike explained that these women are known as BA girls, where "BA" stands for "brand ambassador."
"Current tobacco advertising, especially some of the lifestyle stuff with BA girls, you're trying to get people to smoke. Especially in an environment where people drink, they're more likely to smoke, even if they don't [smoke regularly]."
Brand ambassadors are key to not only encouraging people to smoke but also opening a longer-term relationship between a tobacco company and a smoker. To do that, companies need to get contact details, so they concoct simple games with cheap prizes.
"You either give them [BA girls] your email or you have to log in to a website to retrieve your prize, and that's how they get you there," Mike said. "These prizes are little keychains or key rings or shot glasses but sometimes fancy Bluetooth speakers, that kind of thing."
Cigarette companies also act as ground enforcers, Mike continued. "They'll sponsor music festivals and not be a named sponsor, but they'll pay to have their BAs everywhere and make sure only certain packs of cigarettes are sold."
In East Asia, BAT created another lifestyle brand called Tastemakers that was affiliated with Dunhill cigarettes. It operated in South Korea between 2013 and 2017, and the marketing material describes Tastemakers as a "lifestyle platform" aimed at the "coveted millennial male audience." It existed as an active Facebook page, YouTube channel, Instagram account and app, which featured daily fashion tips along with local bar and restaurant recommendations.
But restaurant recommendations and fashion tips are a smoke screen, and there's a more direct goal for Tastemakers: to reach younger audiences in a heavily regulated and tightly watched marketplace. Because it isn't openly associated with Dunhill cigarettes, Tastemakers can operate on platforms and in venues where its tobacco brand can't.
Tastemakers allowed BAT to promote a Dunhill-aligned brand in mainstream media and, therefore, indirectly promote its adjacent cigarette brand. Tastemakers formed a partnership with major men's magazine GQ in South Korea and even had its own TV show, The Style Class, on Korean channel XtvN (formerly XTM), which pulled in an average of 2.2 million viewers. These figures are courtesy of Germany-based designer Andrew Berglund, who claims in his Behance portfolio to have worked on Tastemakers, describing the marketing initiative as "the most audacious project for BAT in any market." Multiple attempts to contact Berglund were unsuccessful.
Tastemakers allowed BAT to promote the Dunhill brand in mainstream media and, therefore, indirectly promote its adjacent cigarette brand.
The app, which was given a PEGI 3 rating (meaning it's available to all ages), boasted multiple partner organizations and venues in South Korea while more-direct tobacco brand advertising and sales of tobacco took place behind closed doors.
Social media numbers for Tastemakers show the success of this initiative. As part of our investigation, Point and Engadget discovered what appears to be an internal-presentation video, which explains in detail the purpose of Tastemakers and how its success has boosted sales of Dunhill cigarettes. The video was hosted on Vimeo by someone called Soon, who confirmed that they worked on the Tastemakers project but did not answer any further questions by the time of publishing. The video was removed from Vimeo a few days after contacting Soon.
The Tastemakers app was promoted on Dunhill cigarette packs, at the point of sale, in magazine adverts and online with a Facebook, YouTube and Instagram presence. It was a coordinated effort, and it paid off.
In total, the entire marketing drive reached 5.8 million young, trend-conscious men. More than 77,000 people downloaded the app, and it reached the top 20 lifestyle apps on the Google Play store in its first week. These figures come courtesy of the video, which also states that the Tastemakers campaign achieved in three weeks what would have taken two years with traditional marketing, which appears to refer to marketing reach.
Understatement is key to the success of this kind of advertising. "They try to make just enough association with the brand," said Mike. But critically, they don't overdo it.
Tastemakers: Going global
- Korea: In 2014, BAT began a broad Tastemakers campaign involving social media accounts, a cable TV show and a smartphone application.
- Romania: Tastemakers was a partner and sponsor of Romanian Design Week, a 10-day festival that "promotes design as a pad for cultural, social and economical growth." Other partners included UniCredit bank, Absolut, Rompetrol and BAT e-cigarette brand Glo. The brand held a party in Bucharest called Nuit Sociale during the show.
- Dubai: Tastemakers was a sponsor of Fashion Forward, which describes itself as "the definitive fashion platform for Dubai and the Middle East." It held an adjacent party in Dubai called Tastemakers X Disconekt. Other category sponsors included MAC Cosmetics, Evian, L'Oréal, Coca-Cola and Emirates.
In the promotion of other products like a vintage champagne or a well-cut suit alongside a Dunhill-aligned brand, the hope is that the audience will make the connection for themselves. The idea is to make Dunhill cigarettes feel high end and desirable, Arnott explained.
This clearly demonstrates Dunhill's ambition to attract new customers rather than to simply stem the loss of current smokers through cessation success or death, said Arnott.
"My view would be that because of the aspirational nature of the promotion that it's aimed very much at a youth audience and people who are not yet smoking -- not just existing smokers.
"To survive [tobacco companies] have got to get new smokers, because they're killing globally 6 million people a year," she said. "Those are smokers they need to replace in order to carry on making profits."
In response to our request for comment on this article, a British American Tobacco spokesperson said:
"It is extremely important to us that all of our products are marketed responsibly, particularly in respect to ensuring that our activities are only directed towards adult consumers. Consequently, in addition to the strict compliance with all local laws and regulations in the 200 markets where we operate, all of our marketing activities are also required to comply with our own International Marketing Principles, one of main pillars of which is our commitment to conducting our marketing activities in a transparent way.
"In some markets, we hold or sponsor age-verified events at which we are legally able to conduct marketing activities. One of key benefits of holding or sponsoring such events is that we are able to communicate about our products to consumers that we know are all age verified adults.
"Where we are made aware of examples where our Group Principles are not being adhered to or there has been a breach of local law, we immediately review the activity in question and take remedial action."
But that doesn't sit well with Arnott. "We're allowing British companies to export death around the world, and that's just not acceptable."