If you hang out long enough at Ottobar, a dive-y college bar in Baltimore near Johns Hopkins University, there’s a good chance a young person wearing a lanyard will approach you and ask if you smoke tobacco. If you say yes, this person will give you a coupon redeemable at a nearby convenience store to buy a pack of Camels, Newports, or American Spirits for around $4, up to three times cheaper than the sticker price.
This person’s badge will say only that they are a “brand ambassador” and their business card will identify them as an employee of Media Star Promotions, a branded marketing company. They are in fact working on behalf of R.J. Reynolds, the second-largest tobacco company in the United States. For at least the past decade, Reynolds has used thousands of these ambassadors, employed through third-party vendors such as Media Star, as part of an in-person outreach program that operates in cities around the country.
Other tobacco companies also have in-person advertising initiatives — club promotions and music festival tents among them — but Reynolds’s seems to be the most robust, and over time it has become a key part of the company’s marketing strategy. There is little publicly available information about how it works, and multiple former brand ambassadors told Vox that the program is ineffective and poorly monitored by Media Star managers. In order to reach their quotas, the ambassadors said they frequently bent company-imposed rules about who can be marketed to and when — rules designed to keep Reynolds in compliance with federal tobacco regulations.
“The more I worked there, the sketchier it got,” says Josh Thomas, who worked as a brand ambassador for Reynolds last year in Tampa, Florida. “I mean, it starts to feel weird. Even as a cigarette user, it’s a little fucked up that I’m out here trying to get people to keep smoking, giving them discounts so they don’t quit.” Thomas said that in his nine months with Media Star, he knows he got at least two people hooked on cigarettes.
The rise of an in-person marketing program like this one highlights how drastically federal regulations and the rise of vaping have changed the American tobacco industry. The juggernaut of “Big Tobacco” is far from dead, but it has certainly been hobbled, forcing cigarette manufacturers to rely for customer outreach on a constellation of part-time employees working gigs that, in addition to being potentially shady, are downright strange.
How the “brand ambassador” programs work
The coupon program is designed to provide Reynolds with smokers’ emails and home addresses, but it’s constrained by a number of self-imposed rules in order to prevent brand ambassadors from giving coupons to minors or people who don’t already smoke. Here’s how it works: When an ambassador approaches a person who confirms they’re a smoker, the ambassador then scans that person’s ID and enters their email address, phone number, and home address into a handheld device. The person is then given a paper coupon they can redeem for a cheap pack of cigarettes, and Reynolds can email or snail-mail them more promotions.
Media Star emphasizes in employee trainings that the outreach is not intended to create new smokers but rather to draw customers away from popular cigarette brands such as Marlboros, which are manufactured by the other major tobacco conglomerate, Philip Morris. The company instructs new brand ambassadors to end conversations with people who give any indication they don’t smoke tobacco or aren’t at least 21 years old (the current age to buy cigarettes in some states).
Ambassadors must also follow strict rules imposed by Reynolds about when and how to engage with potential clients: They must leave the premises if the media show up at a bar where they’re working, for instance, and aren’t allowed to post their whereabouts on social media. They also work in gas stations, close to one of the most common points of sale for tobacco, but they’re strictly forbidden from conducting transactions in the presence of minors: If a brand ambassador is working in a gas station and a mother comes in with her child, the brand ambassador must put their badge away and move to the other side of the store to ensure the child is out of earshot, even if the mother wants a coupon.
A brief history of tobacco marketing and regulations
This type of advertising program is not new to the industry. Cigarette companies have used in-person promotions at bars and clubs to boost sales for decades. In the early 2000s, for instance, Reynolds sent “cigarette fairies” to give out Camel coupons at bars and built air-conditioned “Newport Pleasure Lounges” at concerts and music festivals. In the 1990s, nearly 20 years before the advent of social media, the company attempted a “viral marketing campaign” to spread the word about its Eclipse brand of smokeless cigarettes via word-of-mouth conversations and online discussion.
“When the tobacco companies got into this kind of marketing, it was when they were getting scrutiny for marketing to kids,” said Pam Ling, a professor at the University of California San Francisco who studies tobacco marketing. “If they operated in bars, though, they could argue they were only selling in an adult environment. Plus, they know young adults are pretty savvy about marketing — this kind of program helps the companies integrate marketing in a way that seems more natural and meshes with social interactions.”
(In a statement to Vox, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said that Reynolds’s program “shows that [tobacco companies] continue to market cigarettes in ways that attract young, price-sensitive customers...[these] companies claim that they want to reduce smoking, but their actions clearly show otherwise.” A representative from the Food and Drug Administration said the department didn’t have any relevant information on Reynolds’s program or similar initiatives.)
But as the federal government has cracked down on tobacco advertising over the past few decades, in-person marketing has become increasingly important for cigarette companies with few other legal options. Starting in the 1960s, Congress gradually imposed a series of marketing regulations on tobacco companies, banning them from advertising on television and requiring them to print mandatory warning labels on their products. The companies held on nonetheless, but in 2009, President Barack Obama signed a sweeping law that gave the FDA full control over regulation of the tobacco industry. This law led to a series of new restrictions that prohibited cigarette giveaways, brand sponsorships, billboards, and most multimedia advertising in public places.
So while other industries have taken advantage of targeted social media ads and digital video, the government has kept tobacco companies back in the 20th century, forcing them to rely mostly on analog media and to cover their product packaging with large, intimidating labels. These restrictions — combined with the impact of a massive public health campaign funded by Big Tobacco pursuant to a 1998 court settlement — have accelerated a longtime decline in smoking, cutting per capita cigarette consumption by more than 50 percent since 1990.
The rise of vaping hasn’t helped: As e-cig sales exploded, the monthly decline in US cigarette sales went from 3 percent in late 2017 to 8 percent earlier this year. While companies like Reynolds and Philip Morris are still profitable on a global scale — cigarette sales are rising in low-income countries and Reynolds also sells nicotine replacements and other alternative products — the companies’ best option for “targeted” advertising in the US market these days is to go into bars and ask people for their emails and home addresses.
“This kind of marketing turned up quite a bit after the [settlement],” said Ling. “Obviously they’re really interested in getting detailed customer information, and they can’t really do that except by getting people into the system through these programs. Once they get their data, though, if they can send them a digital coupon or get them to download an app, they get a direct channel to do more microtargeting of their customer base and monitor their behavior.”
Brand ambassadors report being encouraged to bend the rules
In interviews with Vox, former brand ambassadors said the program was often shady and ineffective, with the coupons easily passing into the hands of nonsmokers or being claimed by repeat customers. And although at $25 an hour for 15 to 20 hours a week, the brand ambassador position represents a lucrative job for many people, the former employees said that management’s pressure to meet email quotas sometimes forced them into stressful or vulnerable situations.
A former brand ambassador named Katya said, for instance, that if her team wasn’t meeting their quotas on a given night, the heads of her program in Milwaukee sometimes sent employees to bars that hadn’t consented to host them, telling them to get as many new email addresses as they could before bar owners realized they were there. (In 2013, seeking to crack down on similar behavior, the city of Chicago sued Reynolds for distributing coupons in a bar without a license.)
“Lots of us would bend the rules because it was such a big thing for us to get more names and emails,” said Katya, who worked as a brand ambassador for two years until late 2017. “There’d be times when they’d tell us to do whatever it takes to keep the numbers up, but the whole time I was there, the numbers were going down.”
The only real monitoring of employees in the field came in the form of random “audits” done by higher-ups who show up in advertising locations unannounced, but the former employees told Vox that these were few and far between — although one former brand ambassador said her manager once showed up to the bar in a wig to spy on her. Meanwhile, Thomas said, his coworkers often posted their whereabouts on Snapchat, shared coupons with their friends, or gave them out to occasional smokers in order to boost their numbers.
“There was really no accountability,” Katya said, “so a lot of times people would just give the coupons to people they knew to get their numbers up, or they’d stop working before they were off the clock and drink on the job. They could tell when we checked in and out, and we had quotas, but other than that, there wasn’t really any way for them to tell what we were doing.” (The ambassadors’ handheld devices also tracked their locations.) If Media Star learned an employee had broken the rules, it would simply terminate them — there was no shortage of young adults in Katya’s area looking for flexible, decently paid gig work.
Some female brand ambassadors also said that even when they worked in bars with a partner, approaching men to offer them coupons sometimes put them in danger. Crystal, who worked as a brand ambassador in the Detroit area, said that on one occasion, when her partner went to the bathroom, she feared for her safety after meeting a group of male customers.
“While I was talking to a man, his friend started making really inappropriate remarks,” she said, “and they got worse as we went along. My partner walked by to use the restroom and didn’t recognize my cues … it was the kind of situation that makes you want to crawl out of your skin.”
Media Star higher-ups conducted annual reviews of each city’s program in order to determine whether it was worth renewing, and managers focused above all else on meeting those goals. But on many nights, the former employees said, especially when the ambassadors worked bars, most of their contacts would be repeat clients coming around to collect their coupons.
“If we got the same people, the managers would say, ‘Well, you need to get new names,’” said Stacy, who also worked as a Tampa brand ambassador in 2015. “Ninety percent of the time I’d show up and the same old faces would just line up to get their coupons. It definitely caused people to stay smoking for longer, but I don’t know if it got more customers into the system.”
“That was a weird job,” Stacy added. “Just, straight up, a weird job. But I needed a job.”
Some former employees, though, insist that their stints as brand ambassadors were more or less issue-free. Hillary, who worked as a brand ambassador in Dallas, said she “loved the job” and that “management were awesome about everything, and strict about the tobacco laws.” She said that she often ran into people in bars who’d converted to Reynolds brands after she’d given them a coupon.
Reynolds declined to provide Vox with information about how large the program is, where it operates, or how effective it is. In a statement, a spokesperson said the company “has demonstrated that our operating companies’ next-generation innovative products can be marketed responsibly to adult tobacco consumers. … Responsible marketing is central to our organization’s values.”
Media Star Promotions, when asked to comment on its contract with Reynolds and the experiences of the brand ambassadors interviewed for this article, said the company “has a clear and comprehensive training program that communicates a very strict procedure for our Brand Ambassadors” and noted that all employees undergo quarterly refresher trainings about tobacco marketing regulations. A spokesperson confirmed it’s common for brand ambassadors to engage with repeat customers over the course of their employment.
For a company that has long been portrayed as part of all-powerful Big Tobacco to engage in what is essentially hand-to-hand coupon distribution might seem surprising, but it’s indicative of how radically tobacco consumption has changed in the United States in recent years. Now that the meteoric rise of vaping has accelerated the death-by-a-thousand-cuts decline started by federal regulation in the United States, cigarette brands that were once titans of industry are now using inefficient, anachronistic tactics to fight for their share of a dwindling market.
The tobacco companies aren’t going down without a fight. As their domestic cigarette revenues fall, both Reynolds and Philip Morris are attempting to cash in on other opportunities, such as the burgeoning e-cigarette market. Last year Reynolds rolled out a vaping product, Alto, and had brand ambassadors in select areas hand out coupons for vape kits and pods instead of cigarettes. Thomas distributed a batch in downtown Tampa shortly before leaving Reynolds and said they sold like hotcakes — he ran out after a few hours.
Update: this story has been updated with a statement from The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Sign up for The Goods’ newsletter. Twice a week, we’ll send you the best Goods stories exploring what we buy, why we buy it, and why it matters.