CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- One would think Anheuser-Busch's Bud.TV experience would have served as adequate warning to Philip Morris USA about the perils of a web property sealed off from the rest of the internet. But nine months after an overhaul, the tobacco company's Marlboro.com site is drawing 1.5 million visitors a month.
When Anheuser-Busch executives reflect back on the failure of their groundbreaking digital-entertainment hub Bud.TV to attract an audience, they often cite a clear culprit: age verification.
Bowing to pressure from anti-alcohol groups and state attorneys general, A-B not only asked Bud.TV visitors how old they were, it actually checked personal information they provided against a database of state-issued identification, a system that often locked even legal-age drinkers out of the site.
Traffic, which A-B originally projected at 2 million monthly unique visitors, often struggled to reach six figures, and three months after launch it was often so low ComScore couldn't even measure it.
None of that, though, has been a problem for the tobacco maker: In addition to the same gating measures used by Bud.TV, Philip Morris has also demanded the last four digits of visitors' Social Security numbers, while actively barring consumers who didn't already use their product from visiting.
The site, which launched in February, is drawing 1.5 million unique visitors a month, according to ComScore.
"It's very impressive, because very few brand sites break the million-person threshold," said a ComScore spokesman.
The heaviest traffiked sites around, for iconic, all-ages brands such as Coca-Cola and McDonald's, typically max out around 4 million unique visitors. And another iconic, unrestricted brand, Campbell's Soup, draws about the same traffic as Marlboro, at 1.6 million monthly uniques. But gated sites usually fall far short of that level: The home pages for Budweiser and Bud Light -- which simply ask visitors how old they are -- drew a combined 130,000 visitors in October. Marlboro's chief tobacco rivals, R.J. Reynolds' Camel and Winston brands, haven't cracked 250,000 unique visitors in the last 12 months at their shared site, which has the same barriers to entry as Marlboro's.
Marlboro's advantage, it turns out, is providing an online brand experience that is engaging and interactive almost to the point of being, um, addictive.
The slickly designed site, from longtime agencies Leo Burnett and Arc, features the expected dose of the brand's iconic western imagery, including a striking two-minute documentary-style film called "True Cowboy" that examines the cowboy lifestyle.
Building on the adventure motif, the site also offers loads of video content centered on extreme sports such as tanker surfing, rappelling and chainsaw sculpting.
There's also a gaming experience that lets visitors play Blackjack or Poker in a "Marlboro Saloon," where they can spin records on a jukebox filled with tracks from the brand's Copper Label. (The music tie-ins don't stop there, as the site also hosted an "American Idol"-style competition between its label's artists, which was decided by fan voting. Visitors to the site can download an album of tracks from the winner, Loni Rose, for free.)
And the site fills out the Marlboro lifestyle content with a Food Network-style culinary section, which not only offers the site's visitors recipes (most of which seem to feature inordinate amounts of chili peppers), but also recommendations on the country's best chili pits and burger joints.
Like most tobacco sites, there's also a healthy dose of promotion, both in the form of coupons ($4 off a carton or $1 off a pack), and a sweepstakes for a trip to the Montana-based Marlboro Ranch. (Visitors to the site can also take an interactive tour of the ranch while they wait to find out if they've won their trip.)
Asked about the site's success, a Philip Morris spokesman was typically tight-lipped, saying only: "The purpose of the site is to showcase the brand for adults who smoke in a responsible way."