Industry Watch: The Bad-Habit Hawkers

It's a dirty world out there and vice marketers know it

A glass of scotch or good wine, a cigar or cigarette, a blackjack table - for many of us, these are a few of our favorite things. They're vices, and though consumer demand is pretty much built-in (and recession-proof to boot), these brands need marketing, too.

First, it's worth noting that not a single marketer agreed to be interviewed for this story. In initial phone conversations, the eyebrow-raises were nearly audible. Many e-mails simply went unanswered. Representatives from the travel site declined because the site doesn't want to be associated with, a spokesperson explained, gambling. And technically, it's not. (But what do you think of first when you think of Vegas? The nice hotel rooms?)

It's no wonder they're all skittish, really. No other group of brands advertises under such strict regulations or evokes such passionate consumer reaction, either in support or condemnation. (Even junk food is under attack. The UK is in the process of banning ads for treats that air during TV programs targeted at kids under 16.)

It's no secret that marketing opportunities now extend beyond magazine pages and 30-second television segments, but how are these brands making use of new media's vast reach and fine targeting to make our favorite vices even more appealing?

A few have blazed extremely successful paths, (and more saintly brands would do well to follow) while others have fallen flat on their faces. (But what sinner hasn't?)

Swear by It really should have worked. In fact, it should have set a couple of industry standards. Anheuser-Busch took the bold step of launching a destination site loaded with original content, and walled it off with the most thorough age-verification process yet, going way beyond the norm to make sure underage consumers stayed out.

Still. A flop.

"When you create things like this, you have to make sure that you've got content that is so damn compelling that people are going to come and watch," says Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a New York City-based research consultancy. "The broadcast and cable companies can't do it consistently. Why do you think that just putting up your own stuff is going to necessarily work?"

Lisa Bradner, a senior analyst with Forrester Research agrees: "They got out a little bit ahead of themselves. They launched to hit the target of the Super Bowl, and they didn't quite have all the content."

The company did well with "Swear Jar," in which an office effort to cut back on swearing results in a blue streak, since the money in the jar will go toward a case of Bud Light. While hosted the video, no one had to go there to see it - a single posting on YouTube got 2.2 million views.

Then there was, which promoted Spykes, a fruit- or chocolate-flavored malt beverage in tiny bottles small enough to tuck into a purse and popped on the go - just like ... candy. Opponents of underage drinking protested, and Anheuser-Busch pulled the product and killed the site, where age verification had not been as diligent as on

"Age verification, a lot of the time, is a joke. Some of the sites simply say, 'Click yes if you're 21,'" says David Jernigan, executive director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University. "Obviously, there is a lot of experience on the Web in shielding audiences from content, most notably pornographic sites, so it's not like we don't know how to do this."

At Absolut's, the ambiguous birth date 01/01/01 will get you in. On Diageo's popular "Tea Partay" site, for Smirnoff Raw Tea, consumers can say they're 21 or 98; no one's checking. And of course, that video is easily found on YouTube, as is the less popular but still well known "Android" video for the company's Johnnie Walker brand.

The sites aim to keep consumers coming back by offering drink recipes, videos, ad downloads, games and more. Other brands can do this freely, of course, but Jernigan argues that those trying to reach a mature audience are on the wrong side of a fine line.

Playing Around

In-game advertising is slightly easier to regulate. Last August, Sony announced it could use its PS3 registration data not only to police and punish griefers, but also to target certain ads to players over 18. It used Bacardi, Durex and Marlboro as hypotheticals.

"It's no problem to have areas that are only open to those aged 18 years and over. We are able to do that quite comprehensively; we have access to the log-in data that they use for the PlayStation Network," Sony's director of the Home platform, Peter Edward, told attendees of the Edinburgh Interactive Festival.

Still, even for Sony, it's impossible to know who's actually playing the game: the 18-year-old who registered, or that guy's 15-year-old brother? And whose responsibility is it to check? The safest, and perhaps most effective, way vice brands reach consumers today is by allowing screened consumers to opt-in. Since targeting has to be a top priority for brands under age restrictions and social constraints, new media has been its saving grace.

After all, "these are vice categories, but they're a lot of fun," says Forrester's Bradner. "So if you're someone who enjoys this, then great, let's message to you."

For Harrah's Entertainment, one of the largest casino brands in the world, having customers opt-in has proven highly lucrative. "Eighty percent of their revenue is tracked to their customer database," says Dave Frankland, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. "They know the person, they know the person's activity, they can make assumptions."

After Harrah's CEO, Gary Loveman, named American Express's David Norton to serve as senior vice president of relationship marketing, the company began tracking customers' habits through Total Rewards, which is tiered much like a credit card rewards program.

Users Are Losers

Passionate vice advocates have the ultimate opt-in: user-generated content. "If you do a search on smoking on YouTube, you find quite a few paeans to smoking," says Gene Borio, a former smoker and the founder of news aggregator,

On social networks, users pay homage to their favorite vice brands; at the site, MySpace layouts extol Philip Morris's Marlboro and Diageo's Captain Morgan. On Facebook, groups organize themselves around favorite cigarette and alcohol brands.

In the hands of consumers, UGC and viral can be forwarded endlessly, and no one can track it, says Georgetown's Jernigan. "It's a big loophole," he says. "We're reliant on the companies to exercise a really high level of responsibility."

While our favorite brands are not likely to suffer, even in the face of an impending recession, needing to find ways to stay competitive while targeting, or at least appearing to target of-age consumers, may give vice marketers something to think about. Not that we care what kind of whisky we're drinking when the stock market crashes.

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