A tobacco company is offering a free lifetime supply of cigarettes to celebrity smokers as part of a guerrilla marketing campaign to raise the public profile of its recently launched brand.
In a tersely worded pitch, Freedom Tobacco International Inc. said it was seeking to "seed" its cigarettes with adult celebrities. The appeal was made Tuesday to publicists through a Web-based network subscribed to by hundreds of public relations agencies.
"To be honest, celebrities make or break your brands. If you look at who drinks what or that sort of thing, celebrity endorsements have always meant a lot," said Patrick Carroll, founder and chief executive of the New York-based company.
But the marketing ploy quickly drew fire from anti-smoking activists.
"Blatant tobacco industry marketing tactics like this one are very disturbing, yet they aren't very surprising to us," said Gwendolyn Young, a board member of the American Lung Association of California. "What it really shows is the tobacco industry is continuing to use these deceptive strategies to lure people of all ages into a deadly addiction."
Freedom launched its first line of cigarettes in March. Called Legal (pronounced "lay-GAHL"), sales of the Colombian-made cigarettes have totaled about $500,000.
Freedom paid covert actresses, called "leaners," to smoke the cigarettes in Manhattan bars and nightclubs for several weeks this spring in a New York effort to promote the fledgling brand, company spokeswoman Nancy Tamosaitis said.
The company is also behind the Right to Smoke Coalition, a group organized to fight bans against public smoking, like the one recently enacted in New York City.
As of Wednesday, no celebrities, other than a group of clothing designers, had accepted Freedom's offer, Carroll said. He stressed the company was not seeking celebrities who appealed to children.
"We're not looking for Barney to be our celebrity and start smoking," Carroll said.
The marketing tactic harkens back to the days when celebrities regularly endorsed cigarettes. Ronald Reagan and Lucille Ball, for example, both appeared in advertisements for Chesterfield in the late 1940s.
Actor Esai Morales, who plays Lt. Tony Rodriguez on ABC's "NYPD Blue," said Freedom is putting "the greater greed before the greater good."
"The fact that they are willing to supply someone for life is kind of scary. It's addictive. It may be legal, but it's immoral," said Morales, who made a 2001 anti-smoking ad for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Carroll said the company does not intend to run advertisements featuring any celebrities who might take the company up on its offer. Instead, they might be asked to appear at company-sponsored events for adult smokers.
Dr. James Sargent, a Dartmouth Medical School pediatrician who studies the effects of on-screen smoking on youth, said a celebrity who smokes a particular brand can be a powerful marketing tool.
"If I put myself in the place of an executive, I would be doing this because this is probably the most powerful way to launch a brand. If he can get several major figures to use the brand, and especially use it in a movie or two, that is the best advertisement he can buy," said Sargent.
The celebrity campaign could backfire for Freedom, said Paul Bloom, a professor of marketing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School.
"My reaction is that it is completely contrary to how all the other members of the industry are behaving right now," Bloom said.