Chris Reiter rented a house near Priscilla's on 43rd Street and Rainbow. He worked on the second floor of the Congress Building at 36th and Broadway. The drive lasted less than five minutes -- about the time it took to smoke a cigarette.
The Congress Building was a drab place with low ceilings, few windows and dingy, gray-carpeted floors. Reiter was usually the first to arrive at the office, where he was greeted by company banners and fake palm trees with torn fronds. A fish tank gurgled in the corner. Cobalt shot glasses were stacked in columns, and lighters littered the coffee table. White fuzzy dice hung above Reiter's computer, onto which he'd downloaded burlesque wallpaper. People could smoke in the office; it smelled like a run-down casino.
Reiter worked for the local branch of Group III Promotions, a Chicago-based public-relations firm. As a "program manager," he carried out a contract the company had signed with the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company to promote Camel cigarettes in local bars.
Reiter says he had two sides: Corporate Chris and Party Chris.
Corporate Chris was running a $130,000 marketing campaign. He knew the industry and the costs associated with supplying his goods and services to customers. In March, he exceeded his goals by 136 percent and had his best quarter ever.
Party Chris had six piercings: one in each ear, one in his tongue, a ring in his lip and one through each nipple. A swirl of sea creatures and a mermaid crested in a wave tattooed from elbow to shoulder on his left arm. Waiting to be colored on his right arm was a mermaid holding a baby and sitting on an anchor. He'd seen mothers yank their kids away when he passed them at the mall.
The best part about Reiter's job was that the image he sold was simply a reflection of himself. The message was simple: Camel is young. Camel is hip. Camel is cool.
Every week, R.J. Reynolds comped Reiter a carton of Camel Ultra Lights. Sometimes he smoked more than a pack a day -- call it professional drive. After he factored in all the perks, Reiter, a high school graduate, was making $45,000 a year.
By this spring, the campaign had made him a nightlife kingpin. Bouncers waved his cover charges. Bartenders poured him free drinks. Girls knew his name.
"If you can market a product that kills people," he says, "you can sell anything."
Cigarette companies had conquered nightclubs by the time Saturday Night Fever sparked the disco craze.
In 1971, the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act banned cigarette ads from TV and radio. In response, Philip Morris (Marlboro, Parliament, Virginia Slims, Benson and Hedges, and Basic), R.J. Reynolds (Camel, Winston, Salem, and Doral) and other cigarette manufacturers took their products directly to the people.
They marketed different brands to different consumers. Experts say that bar promotions for Virginia Slims tried to attract African-American women; Brown and Williamson's Kool sought African-American males. The entire market for Newport, a cigarette produced by Lorillard, was created by bar sampling -- promos at six Long Island nightclubs in the mid-'70s doubled the number of Newport smokers in the area.
In the '80s, big tobacco companies arrived in force at spring break destinations. In Florida, they "sponsored" bars in Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach and hung banners at pool parties. They also showed up at ski resorts in Aspen, Colorado.
The idea was to corner the college crowd. Camel's mystique had faded with the '50s, and Winston had been dethroned by Marlboro around 1970. "The only people smoking Camel in the '70s were the guys in the VA hospital with their limbs lopped off," says Michael Cummings, who is chairman of health behavior at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York. Cummings is a leading expert witness against cigarette makers in lawsuits involving tobacco use, policy, packaging and control.
Bars offered smoker-friendly environments with specific target groups. "You can basically go out and take over a bar with your image and then use image equity to do other advertising on billboards, transit and print," Cummings explains.
R.J. Reynolds debuted its idea for "Camel Clubs" in Chicago in 1996. In a grassroots distribution scheme to get smokers to switch brands, the company sponsored live musicians and DJs at nightclubs. By 1998, a Camel spokeswoman says, Camel Clubs were up and running in Kansas City. The first bars to sign up included Atlantis (now the XO Club), the Hurricane and a few other Westport clubs.
But the next year, having been sued by the attorneys general of 46 states, seven big tobacco companies signed the Master Settlement Agreement. It forced them to pay states $206 billion over 25 years and further regulated their marketing tactics. In addition to its $1.5 billion anti-smoking campaign, the Master Settlement Agreement banned cartoon characters in advertising, outdoor advertising for cigarettes and brand-name sponsorships of events with significant youth audiences.
Bars, though, guaranteed cigarette manufacturers a market of supposedly 21-and-older consumers. Between 1999 and 2001, some Camel Club owners say they saw a 25 percent increase in the money Camel was sending their way. And Camel was one of the only programs that still gave customers what they wanted: free cigarettes.
Marlboro, by contrast, was paying some Kansas City bar owners about $100 each night its representatives showed up to offer clubgoers Zippo lighters in exchange for their names and addresses. People who signed up would start receiving a sporty Marlboro magazine in the mail, and they'd get a package of Marlboro beef jerky on their birthdays.
Philip Morris was muscling out Camel everywhere people bought cigarettes over the counter, Cummings says. Marlboro dominated shelf space at grocery stores, gas stations and wholesale warehouses such as Costco.
Working on behalf of Camel in Kansas City, the Chicago-based marketing firm KBA (which would later merge with Group III Promotions) started throwing events called Seven Pleasures of the Exotic. The company's marketing whizzes transformed bars into themed parties. XO hosted an event that converted the sleek six-counter, New York-style complex to an oxygen bar. At Missie B's there was a masquerade party, complete with complimentary wigs and makeup artists, a caricaturist and a photo booth.
KBA also set up a Camel tent at summer concerts in the River Market and at SpiritFest at the Liberty Memorial. The Camel effort was turning out to be more successful than a similar Winston campaign KBA was running throughout Kansas, which R.J. Reynolds shut down in 2001.
At the parties, people who signed mailing lists were entered in drawings for trips to Las Vegas. Participants received coupons and Camel promotional material. KBA used the lists to compile smoker demographics, target possible customers, and figure out whether the bar marketing program had convinced smokers to switch brands.
By 2003, KBA had changed its name to Group III and was handling about $130,000 worth of Camel promotions in Kansas City bars. St. Louis received $250,000 for more than fifty bars. Both were pittances compared with the bankroll for larger club scenes in Dallas and Chicago; the Camel Club program was investing more than $10 million in 43 cities nationally.
The money made a big difference to the local clubs. Owners used it to book big-name acts they otherwise couldn't have afforded. Sources say clubs got anywhere from $500 to $11,000 annually, depending on how many smokers they could draw.
Kansas City, which had been one of the first cities outside of Chicago infiltrated by the Camel Club program, became a tour stop for more musicians. And as long as they filled out the requisite forms, the people in the audience were getting free cigarettes each night.
At noon, Reiter would sometimes meet with Ryan Short, his field manager, at the Congress Building for an update on sign-up numbers and projected goals. They'd talk about venues, event scheduling and inventory.
Every Wednesday, cardboard boxes filled with cigarettes reinforced the north and east walls of a beige room at the office. Other cartons were stacked head-high, like shoeboxes in a wardrobe cabinet. It was gratis product, Reiter says -- for promotional use only. The packages weren't tax-stamped; each was bound by a blue-striped cellophane label: "Complimentary, Not for Sale."
At 8 p.m. on those nights, Short would meet with thirteen regular Camel representatives. All were under thirty and attractive; they'd been recruited from the late-night scene, where a partier with a good reputation was the professional equivalent of a college grad who'd spent the summer doing a prestigious internship.
"Hiring people out of the nightlife isn't the most reliable thing," Reiter says. But it was better than sorting through a stack of faceless résumés.
Besides good looks, the only real requirement was good handwriting for filling out forms. Reps earned about $9 an hour and a pack of smokes a night. By March of this year, Group III was servicing 45 bars in the River Market, on the Plaza, north of the river, and in Waldo, Westport and downtown.
Short wanted Camel faces in each establishment three times a week. At the Wednesday night meetings, reps broke open boxes and lined large, black duffel bags with cigarettes. They picked up a Sony digital camera mounted inside an 8-inch plastic box as well as cigarette questionnaires and consent forms. Short gave out weekly schedules showing where his troops would be deployed. On average, most reps would have to hit six bars a night. At 9:30 p.m., they checked out cigarettes. They were expected to distribute more than 300 packs a night.
"We saw hundreds of people each night, from regular sign-ups to new sign-ups to Westport security guards," says 23-year-old Jeremy Scheuch, who repped for more than a year.
On any given night, they walked into a bar with approximately $1,000 worth of merchandise to give away. It was liberating, they say. It was exhilarating. It felt like being Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, only sexier.
At XO on a Friday night, subterranean bass beats reverberated, and a sea of people rolled upon the red-lit dance floor and rocked inside metal cages. Patrons huddled in booths along the back wall or orbited two halo-shaped bars in the center of the room. At capacity, the club held 1,500 people. Partiers wearing neon glowstick necklaces appeared like radar blips within the entangled mass of people. In the back room, a DJ spun two records so fast that his set deck looked like a cassette rewinding. And people waited for their Camel reps -- some arrived early so that they wouldn't miss Reiter and Short's employees. Paying a $5 cover to get $8 worth of free cigarettes was a good deal.
Because of marketing agreements, reps weren't allowed to wear the Camel logo, so they were distinguishable only by the black duffel bags. Some men wore tight T-shirts over their muscled frames. Some women wore sweaters and jeans; others wore revealing, plaid-skirted schoolgirl outfits.
Reps had to talk to everyone. Pretty people, drunk people, annoying people, it didn't matter. In return for signing a consent form and getting their ID photographed, bar patrons got two packs of cigarettes. People had to prove they were already smokers by presenting their own tax-stamped pack.
There was a system of patronage: A good rep would hand out cigarettes to owners, bartenders and bouncers first -- after all, reps were carrying enough merchandise to get mugged. Most of the time, these special customers didn't have to sign a form to get free cigarettes. Reps often comped bar owners two packs a night.
Amid the crowd, the response to a Camel rep's appearance was Pavlovian.
"Wherever we went, we made sure to hit a Camel bar," says 25-year-old Danielle Rosenblum. Two years ago, she won a free two-night trip to Vegas as part of a Camel promotion at XO. She and a friend stayed at the Aladdin Resort for a party with an estimated 300 winners from around the nation.
Rosenblum would position herself by the door and watch for the reps' arrival. Getting two packs on a Saturday could sustain her habit until she got two more near the end of the week. She says she didn't have to pay for cigarettes for years.
When pretty women approached, the reps knew their names. And phone numbers. It was impossible not to -- the information was written on consent forms they signed each week. Some reps would be swamped for hours.
The same thing was going on across the metro. In the Lava Room, at 38th and Broadway, reps pushed smokes surrounded by lava lamps and lounge music. At the Hurricane in Westport, they sat at the round wooden bar or in a corner wallpapered by multicolored fliers for upcoming shows, signing up Westport security guys before the night got busy. They worked Jam Master Jay's last show there, a few weeks before the former Run DMC DJ was shot and killed at a studio in New York. At Tomfooleries on the Plaza, they hung around after hours and drank, sometimes until five in the morning.
At Kabal, a dance club across the street from the City Market, music bumped from the lower-level dance floor. Reps worked the crowd on two stories, sliding around people in the upstairs dining room and then heading to a basement with black concrete floors and plush olive-green couches.
Siamack Zahabi and his partner, Eric King, the club's co-owners, received a couple of packs of gratis cigarettes each night and put them in a glass on the bar. On nights when the Camel reps weren't there, patrons could smoke for free from this makeshift bouquet.
The duo opened the bar last November. Without a 3 a.m. liquor license, Zahabi and King were struggling to make Kabal a destination when they signed with Camel in January. The club's capacity was only 180, so when reps appeared, Zahabi and King would lose money on cigarette sales. But there were other benefits. Camel Clubs got free bar essentials: logoed matchbooks, bev naps, Camel signs and a three-shelf, logo-emblazoned plastic lockbox to display Camels behind the bar. Zahabi signed a $2,000 contract to bring in big-name acts like DJ Diz, a nationally known spinner from Chicago; and Astroglide, a group with two New York DJs who perform progressive house music.
Zahabi figured he'd spend $500 in Camel money on each show in an attempt to dispel the stigma left by Oldham, a bar and restaurant that had lasted only eight months at the same location. He also planned to bring in the English group Layo and Bushwacker by the end of this year.
Using underground acts to lure customers to Kabal was just another form of niche marketing.
On almost any night at the club, women in black-leather caps and tube tops vibed to deep bass grooves and ambient sounds. Occasionally, women in short skirts made come-hither motions toward each other. Usually there was a guy wearing baggy pants and skate shoes stomping double-time at the edge of the dance floor. The DJ Diz show filled Kabal beyond capacity, drawing more than 200 people.
It was a win-win deal for Camel, says company spokeswoman Maura Payne. "Bars tend to be an environment in which people smoke, so it is a good environment for us to convert a smoker over to our brand versus a competitor," she tells the Pitch.
Some of the big clubs in Westport took in about $11,000 last year from the cigarette company. XO used it for everything from importing talent to paying for liquor and utility bills. Dave Audé, a well-known DJ from Los Angeles, played there in November 2002, turning the club from a ghost town to a block party in a matter of hours. The money saved XO $10,000 in bar supplies alone, says the club's general manager, Sleiman Abdullah.
By this March, Reiter and Short's reps were giving away more than 3,000 packs of cigarettes a week. There was a Camel rep in some bar every night. Bar owners were noticing that the company had pulled back its funding a bit, but Group III was making record gains for sign-ups.
Reiter had moved to Kansas City in 1993 when his dad got a job selling life insurance. He met his first friends here at a church youth group -- he doesn't remember the name of the church, but the denomination was Baptist. As a sophomore at Olathe South High School, he played football and, later, rugby. He liked rugby better because there was more camaraderie. The rules weren't as strict. He could hit harder.
In 1997, he took classes at Johnson County Community College, but he didn't last a semester. A couple of years later he got the job at what was then KBA, toting the black duffel five nights a week in Waldo and midtown. He'd started in the restaurant industry after high school, working as a chef, as a bartender when he turned 21, and then as a line cook at Lidia's downtown. But Reiter was one of the few people who saw cigarette repping as the first rung on a corporate ladder. He took on more hours delivering bar essentials and helping around the Group III office.
Short had graduated from high school in De Soto and moved to Olathe, spent a few semesters at Johnson County Community College and then quit, enlisting in the Marine Corps Reserves. Eventually, he landed a union gig installing overhead garage doors for $25 an hour. Bored, he walked off the job. He started repping for the Winston campaign in Kansas. When the program died in October 2001, a KBA field manager hired him for Camel.
Short worked for nine months before being promoted to field manager in Dallas. He transferred back to Kansas City in May 2002. Counting his mileage reimbursement, his cell phone account, the free weekly carton of cigarettes and his regular salary, he made about $40,000 last year.
"I was spending most of my life in bars anyway," Short says. "We were paid to throw professional parties."
There were rules, of course.
Short imposed six mandates -- the Camel Commandments -- on reps every Wednesday night. Don't give cigarettes to minors. Don't give cigarettes to nonsmokers. Don't drink. Don't be late for work. Hit your numbers. Sell the message.
Short told his reps that they didn't work for a tobacco company -- they worked for a marketing firm. They weren't doctors, scientists or anyone else whose opinion mattered. Reps carried a card to hand out in case reporters approached them; it bore the name of David P. Howard, assistant public relations representative for R.J. Reynolds.
Reiter followed the CYA -- "cover your ass" -- strategy for success. "Our reps weren't promoting smoking, just promoting a product to a consumer base that uses that product," he says. Reps were discouraged from talking to anyone who even appeared underage.
Some reps took advantage of the inevitable free booze and bouncing women. These employees were soon gone, Reiter says. Those who could handle the scene usually worked part time for eight months to a year.
"It was all pretty fake, but still fun," Short says. "You were automatically the coolest guy in the bar as soon as you walked in."
After a while, though, the job became routine, the club scene predictable. "It was like being a regular at 45 bars," Short says. Some bar owners knew their faces better than their names. Reps were just part of the late-night equation: beer plus music plus the guy who gives out cigarettes.
Things were starting to feel homogenized on a corporate level, too. It was more about slapping brands on bars than endorsing local talent or attracting innovative acts.
Nonetheless, business at Group III was booming, Reiter says. At the end of March, he had hired fifteen new reps to start working a white tent at the Verizon Amphitheater.
Reiter landscaped the backyard of his rented house on 43rd and Rainbow himself and added a 3-foot flower pot converted into a koi pond in the center of the lawn, complete with running water. In the living room he set up two freshwater fish tanks, one containing foot-long fish, the other with smaller fish that darted among the crumbling columns of a miniature Greek pantheon. The larger tank, holding 125 gallons and weighing nearly a ton when full, cost more than $1,000.
The Group III staff -- corporate executives under the age of thirty -- had reason to live large. Each rep had adopted his own version of the best-salesman-in-the-business speech. If you can sell cigarettes, imagine how easily you could sell Coca-Cola. Or Budweiser. Or any product with fewer marketing restrictions.
When Scheuch went out at night, he says, staffers from non-Camel bars recognized him. He says bar owners begged him to let them become Camel Clubs.
Most reps never needed to pay for alcohol -- bartenders wouldn't let them. Short couldn't smoke his free carton a week, so he started stacking the surplus boxes like gold bars inside his freezer.
"It was the first job I had where I could wake up in the morning and not feel bad about going to work," says Ryan Rimmer, the Group III sales manager. Rimmer moved to a place in the Historic River Bend Lofts North in the River Market. He bought two black-leather couches.
"I didn't have any concerns about my next paycheck, because the job was stable," Rimmer says.
Reps needed to sign up about 1,240 people a week, Short says. Quota reports showed they were consistently over that goal by more than 300 sign-ups.
Reiter prepared to lease a new office. He planned to move the company into a wood-floored, arch-ceilinged former law office that had recently been refurbished at 7th Street and Oak.
Then, reps vanished from the bars. They were replaced by vending machines. DJs still spun house beats and people still danced, but when the hunk or hottie with the duffel didn't appear, patrons suddenly had to feed their crumpled five-dollar bills into a metal slot and pull a lever for their pack of cigarettes.
On April 2, Reiter and Scheuch, the newly promoted Verizon program manager, were supposed to fly to Dallas for a concert-venue training program. The day before they left, Group III headquarters called and told them to wait because the program had been rescheduled.
They should have seen it coming. In two weeks, R.J. Reynolds' $180 million Master Settlement Agreement payment was due.
Just before noon on April 2, Short clicked his mouse on an e-mail and learned that Camel's account with Group III was terminated, effective immediately, because of "ongoing market conditions."
He called Reiter and told him to get his ass into the office. Someone went out and bought a big bottle of whiskey. As they waited to join a national conference call at 1 p.m., the men lit up their complimentary cigarettes.
"It was a swift kick in the dick," Scheuch says. He'd been offered a salaried position just three weeks earlier.
Reiter estimates that more than 2,000 employees nationwide were suddenly out of work.
By the time of the conference call, Scheuch, Rimmer, Short and Reiter were shit-faced and learning that they had to ship 17,966 packs of cigarettes back to R.J. Reynolds headquarters in North Carolina immediately. Group III would pay Reiter to clean out the office, a rented storage space at Eaton and Southwest Boulevard, and a storage container at Verizon. His friends would receive a couple of weeks' pay to help him.
Corporate policy mandated that no one tell bar owners the situation until a form letter arrived to be distributed a few weeks later.
But, Reiter says, "The nightlife industry is rife with rumors. Pretty soon everybody knew."
Short brought a case of Budweiser to the weekly meeting that night and fired all of his reps. Reiter convinced Group III to make severance payments to bars on their annual contracts.
Shutting down the program may save Camel some money. But at Kabal, Zahabi's Astroglide show was set for Saturday, May 31, and Zahabi was out $500.
"I don't have money to throw parties anymore," says Jimmy LeBlanc, who owns the Lava Room. The Lava Room had been a Marlboro bar, but LeBlanc switched sponsorship when he bought the place in 1999 because Camel's money seemed too good to be true. The Lava Room had gone through thirty cases of napkins and five cases of ashtrays and matches a year; LeBlanc says he wanted customers to take the ashtrays home so their friends would ask them where they got the cool paraphernalia. He was counting on $4,200 and more than $1,500 worth of bar essentials this year.
"With a small venue like this, one of the attractive things is that I never have to charge a cover," he says. "Without the money to advertise or promote Camel, I'll have to take it right out of my pocket or charge cover for a party, which is supposed to be a special occasion, and I can't do that."
For higher-capacity clubs robbed of the Camel Club money and free bar essentials, the pain will increase exponentially.
Smokers such as Danielle Rosenblum, who won the free trip to Vegas in 2001, will have to buy cigarettes on a regular basis for the first time in years.
It's a Thursday night. Reiter has spent more than a month straightening out things at the office. He went to the storage container at Verizon and rifled through the piles of beaded curtains and toppled palm trees. His Group III boss in Chicago had told him to destroy the 6-foot-tall camel in the storage bin. He thought of setting it on fire. He broke the legs of a plastic camel that had been a prop for a party game. He took a few signs and furniture the company allowed him to keep -- wicker event tables and chairs and freestanding, metal-poled ashtrays that now decorate his front porch.
Now he's come to XO to distribute the last severance check, for about $3,000.
The bouncer waives his cover. A few patrons orbit the brightly lit, circular front bar while a blond waitress in a baby-blue Playboy shirt pours drinks. Reiter heads to the back and orders a Red Bull and vodka. It comes in a plastic cup on a Camel-embossed napkin.
Short was supposed to meet Reiter tonight, but he's a no-show. After losing his job, Short worked an NCAA basketball event in Lawrence for a few days. Then he answered a newspaper ad for a marketing position, but it turned out to be for door-to-door coupon sales. Now he's packing to leave Kansas City on a tour with the Eckrich meat company. Driving a 24-foot Isuzu truck decorated to look like a house, Short will spend five months visiting 25 cities. His job will be to park the truck outside festivals and grocery stores and grill sausages for the masses.
"Maybe it's time to clean up, button down," Reiter says. "Gotta grow up sometime, right? Well, I'm pretty grown-up. It just doesn't appear that way. I'm not what you expect when you talk over the phone."
Reiter applied for a management position at a liquor distribution company. He pulled ironed shirtsleeves over his tattooed arms, knotted a necktie and unplugged all of his visible piercings -- except the large-bored stones in his earlobes. Now he works a couple of nights a week at Icon, a friend's tattoo shop in Blue Springs, helping people pick out body art and piercings. Last weekend he started barbacking at the Lava Room.
He grabs a cigarette from a tax-stamped pack of Parliament Lights beside his elbow. At the edge of the bar, a guy wearing a glowstick necklace like a lighted tiara yells something about raving forever. A man in a white, button-up shirt and a woman in a short, black dress stagger unconvincingly toward the dance floor, caught in spinning white lights.
Using a copper Zippo, Reiter lifts a flame to his cigarette. He got the lighter from a promotion at Kelly's about a week ago. He was walking to a hot-dog stand and saw one of his old Camel reps at the window, soliciting signatures in exchange for free Marlboro lighters. Pushing lighters is tougher than peddling smokes, Reiter says. Sympathetic to his former employee's plight, he came in and filled out a form.