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.