Monthly Archives: October 2008

Smoke For Free, Die For Nothing

Publicity surrounding the link to cancer has left US tobacco firms so desperate to recruit new customers they have started giving their products away.

I was “hit up” by one of Chicago’s “cigarette fairies” – a promotional vendor who has routes throughout urban bars and clubs.

“So what brand do you smoke?” she asked. “You seen the British Camel Lights? They call them Blues because some legislation said it was deceptive to call cigarettes ‘light’.”

She scanned my passport and asks me a few vitals – name, number, address and so on.

“Why do you need my phone number?” I asked.

“Something like 2% of the people we hit up get a phone call in the year and they have a chance of winning like a carton or something,” she replied.

Her job is to collect details about smokers (what they smoke, how much and so on) and then give out two packets of Camel-branded cigarettes. For free. Cancer on the cheap.

Their performance rating is gauged on how many cigarettes they manage to hand out… and how many they convert to the cause of administering lung disease to the American population.

“We’re all over the place… all over America. It’s a sweet job,” she told me.

“I’ve got this brand called Crush – there’s a little pellet in the filter you break so you can have a menthol smoke if you want one.

“I’ve also got chewing tobacco that’s been pasteurized so you don’t have to spit it out. You can just swallow what you chew.”

Gross. “Don’t you feel a bit guilty about handing out what is essentially an addictive and unhealthy habit to people?”

“They always have a choice. And usually the choice is to take it up.”

Ever since Chicago’s smoking ban kicked in at the start of the year, cigarette companies like RJ Reynolds have had to play a devious game in order to lure in more nicotine addicts.

From handing out free cigarettes in bars and parties – usually to the hip and trendy types who dictate style – to edible chewing tobacco (“there are different strengths and flavours depending on your taste”) Camel and other cigarette brands are frantically and aggressively marketing their wares in increasingly innovative and arguably reckless ways.

There are “gift packs” that include your two packets of cigarettes, a lighter, a mint-flavoured sweet, a condom, and a moist towelette.

Having been previously exposed to chocolate-flavoured cigarettes and ones with designer packs that indicate my level of “cool”, I’ve known the dark arts of cigarette marketing.

They got me hooked at the age of 14. I’m one of those smokers who say they should quit because it’s socially acceptable to do so but never follow through because that inner teenager fears being shunned by my peers (the umbilical cord of carcinogenic chemicals notwithstanding).

RJ Reynolds, the company that oversees the Camel brand, advertise for “highly motivated and principled university graduates with strong communication skills who can build win-win relationships”.

The ideal candidate will become a “passionate tobacco expert” and a “valuable business consultant”. Essential skills include “a willingness to take responsibility, honesty, integrity (and) trustworthiness”.

RJ Reynolds offer a “comprehensive” health and welfare benefits package, a “generous” annual bonus, and a company car.

As ever, the “free choice” card is played. But the temptation can’t be negated. For the sales rep, a low-effort decently paid job with fringe benefits.

For the punter, two free packs of smokes – a saving of just over £9 – and the glee of getting something for nothing (apart from handing over your personal details).

You save a bit of money and you may get a phone call somewhere down the line.

In exchange, you hand over your personal details to a major corporation with the power to lobby governments.

So stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

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This article was originally published on Sky News Online on 14 October 2008. All rights reserved.

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Banksy Sets Up Shop In Big Apple

Banksy, the Scarlet Pimpernel of the art world, is in New York. Or was.

Whoever Banksy may be, he’s opened the Village Pet Store and Charcoal Grill in New York’s West Village.

It features animatronics developed by “some Hollywoodish company”. Set in a shopfront Sweeny Todd would own if he were into animals, a rabbit paints its nails, chicken nuggets feed from a dish of sauce, fish fingers swim in a bowl, hot dogs burrow and frolic in terrariums, CCTV cameras look after their young, a leopard print coat perches atop a tree, and a bald, caged, suicidal-looking Tweety swings back and forth in his cage.

Banksy is no stranger to installations. In 2005 in London’s Notting Hill, he filled a shop front with live rats and his painted reworkings of the sort of thing you would see in the National Gallery and called it Crude Oils.

The difference here is that nothing is for sale. Nothing is signed, nothing is commodified. The actors manning the shop play every bit the New York pet shop owner.

One of the pet shop owners is a tutor at the School of Visual Arts, Marty Abrahams. His son was approached by Banksy’s people with an offer of a short term job for Marty with some “acting involved”.

Reaction from the natives has been anything from asking to buy the entire show (nothing is for sale, but the “souvenirs” will probably end up on eBay) to befuddlement to “it’s a metaphor – we start off as chicken nuggets, graduate to hot dogs then turn into the masturbating monkey”.

Banksy gives his own reasons for the show. “New Yorkers don’t care about art, they care about pets. So I’m exhibiting them instead. I wanted to make art that questioned our relationship with animals and the ethics and sustainability of factory farming, but it ended up as chicken nuggets singing. I took all the money I made exploiting an animal in my last show and used it to fund a new show about the exploitation of animals. If its art and you can see it from the street, I guess it could still be considered street art.”

Banksy stalkers and “those in the know” have been chattering about “something big” by Britain’s favourite vandal for months. However, his publicist and anyone “official” will only say that there is a new pet store in New York.

The Village Pet Store and Charcoal Grill is open to the public until 31 October on 89 7th Avenue, New York City and can be viewed any time day or night, inside or out.

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This article was orginally published on Sky News Online on 10 October 2008. All rights reserved.

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