By ALYCE VAYLE
I am ashamed to admit to one of the worst jobs I ever held. I wasn’t a stripper, a garbo or a telemarketer. From 1998 to 2000, I was a professional cigarette girl.
A little over a decade ago, large cigarette companies employed young, good looking promotional staff, both men and women, to go to venues where other young people hung out, to promote cigarette brands to them.
We did this by offering club and pub goers discounts on cigarettes. Knowing how sensitive this activity could be, we were heavily schooled on the terminology we could use. Back in 1998 we used to offer two packets for $12, and the buyer also received a cigarette lighter. We ‘ciggie girls’ were told not to use the words ‘free’, ‘discount’ or ‘bonus’ in association with the lighter, and if any club or pub patron asked us how much the lighter cost, we were to say that it was ‘included in the price of the packet.’
The teams would go out in groups of six or eight, overseen by the cigarette company’s promotions manager who would assign us into pairs. Paid about twenty bucks an hour each, we would be taken by cars to all the cool inner-city venues, spending about half an hour in each. Every girl had a tray of cigarettes and a cute uniform, and we would go around offering the cigarette ‘product’ for the purposes of ‘brand recognition’.
Shocking, I know.
Please remember that this was the late 90s and people could still smoke in clubs, even right at the bar. Diners could still light up in a restaurants and there were some flights that offered ‘smoking lounges’ in the air. I should mention at this point that I am a non-smoker, but I am tolerant of those who smoke; when I was growing up in the 80s it was a lot more common.
Today people might ask the question, why did the cigarette companies promote their brands in this way? Simply put, because they could. Plain packaging was still more than a decade off; packets were heavily branded, but because companies in the late 90s were still banned from print, TV and radio advertising, cigarette big wigs were trying to work out ways to get people to smoke their brand of cigarettes over the other brands.
These companies were faced with a conundrum, how could they promote something that they couldn’t advertise on TV or in magazines? The solution was clear; they had to promote their products at the ground level; by sponsoring popular events (such as the Formula One) and with live promotions at popular clubs and pubs.
That’s where the cigarette girls came in.
I first got into promotions at age 18. Fresh out of high school, I spotted a bunch of young women giving out copies of a men’s magazine on an inner-city street corner wearing branded T shirts. Wanting a free magazine, I asked for one and their manager suggested that I might be suitable to work in promotions myself. She told me that ideally you should be under 25, good looking, confident and able to commit to regular casual hours. It did not sound like hard work.
Many clients use promotions agencies, but by far majority of jobs came from alcohol and cigarette companies. It was good money for a young woman; sales assistant or cafe wages were comparatively lower and the weekend hours of promotions work allowed me to keep two jobs and start my university degree.
The downside of the work was the fact that I was being leered at and getting unwanted attention from drunk and disorderly people. As you can imagine, the outfits they put us in were skimpy, at best. The various cigarette brands called for different outfits (many Australians may not realise that the market here is dominated by two major players- Phillip Morris and British American Tobacco- which between them, house almost all the commonly known cigarette brands). One brand’s outfit was a gold miniskirt, a blonde wig and a gold crop top (which showed the wearer’s midriff) with a hole cut away to display cleavage. Another brand dressed us in black wigs, tight black miniskirts and red lipstick.
The work was easy, and previous to doing it, I had never been immersed in the club scene. The job made me feel cool and impressive, and very grown-up. As promotions staff, we were granted free entry into every nightclub and had access to VIP rooms and backstage areas. Some cigarette brands even employed dancing promotions girls, who would put on a ten minute dance routine while we worked the crowd with our trays of ‘cancer sticks’.
By early 2000 I was still doing promotions work, as I finished my degree. But the mood had changed. The culture around cigarettes was shifting quickly. New laws were being created and from 1999 the Australian government began the National Tobacco Strategy, releasing a report recommending further smoking bans in May 2001. Feelings about being exposed to others’ passive cigarette smoke were growing fast.
I had relocated to Queensland by then and I was now working for a different promotions company, for a ‘lower-price-point’ brand. This time, we went out during the day, taking our trays of ciggies to the pubs of the Gold Coast and Brisbane, watching as the bored kids ran circles around their pokie-playing parents at 2pm in the afternoon.
I’ll never forget the first time we were called ‘the cancer brigade’.
We were walking down the street and a man yelled out the words to our group of five (two pairs of girls and a manager) and started to approach us. Our manager thankfully dealt with the situation but after that, we were told to cover our trays with our jackets when we walked down the street. We were also told to cover the logos on our T shirts.
For the first time, I started to question what I was doing. Up until that point I hadn’t really thought about it too much. But I should have. Every cigarette boy or girl who worked with the two big brands had to do awareness training. This usually involved a day or two of workshops and seminars. We had these ideas heavily enforced throughout our training. The companies stressed that we were not promoting cigarettes to young people, we were not encouraging people to smoke, we were not prompting the habit, just the brand.
Cigarettes are legal in Australia, we all know that, so if a product is legal, why shouldn’t it be marketed? It’s fair to say that the world feels differently about cigarettes now. In a landmark move, smoking was recently banned in US prisons, with some in NSW following suit. In October 2012, Australia’s High Court ruled on a 6:1 decision backing plain packaging legislation against constitutional challenge by tobacco companies.
Cigarettes are no longer promoted with ciggie girls and boys in Australia. Part of the fuss was that these promotions were seen to be targeting young people. A government report says, “Exposure to promotions reaches young adults, and their influence can also be expected to trickle down to younger adolescents, who are keen to emulate adult behaviour.”
The government now claims that it has put effort into state-level attempts to control these activities, saying that most states have banned mobile cigarette girls and boys but there have been recent examples of sneaky cigarette promotions, including sponsored ‘smoking lounges’ at the Big Day Out and reports of free packets of cigarettes given out to guests at a fashion industry charity party at the Sydney Opera House, as late as 2007.
There are other claims that promotional staff working for cigarette companies at events like these encouraged participants to sign up to an email database. The government believed that this was to facilitate publicity about future events, where these potential customers could be further promoted to. Does a big ciggie company have your mobile number? Are you sure? How long will the legacy of cigarette promotions last, another generation? Two?
The landscape has changed in Australia and cigarette companies are no longer able to promote with the same methods but with the ever-increasingly narrow ways they have to market one brand from another, rest assured that while there is still money to be made from cigarettes, the big companies will find ways to promote themselves to new and old markets.
It’s still a legal business, after all.
Alyce Vayle has many publishing credits, including a recent article Are You Too Ashamed to Lose Weight in the Sydney Morning Herald, an opinion piece Death of the Shock Jock for Crikey.com. She regularly contributes toFamilies.com and All Girls Talk, and has had work published in Link Magazine, Made You Look Magazine, The Australian Women’s Forum, Company Director Magazine and the City News Publication.
Have you ever had a job you’re embarrassed to admit to?