Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. has launched what is believed to be the first U.S. Web site for a cigarette brand. But in an intriguing twist, neither the tobacco company nor the brand, Lucky Strike, is mentioned anywhere on the site.
That isn't stopping Brown & Williamson from collecting information from site visitors, including name, address and whether they're smokers--even though some users obviously aren't aware the site is supported by a tobacco marketer.
Newspapers ads for Lucky Strike filters, running in the San Francisco area, ask readers to "Visit Lucky Strike's Circuit Breaker at http://www.circuitbreak.com." Circuit Breaker is the name the company has used to label the four-page newspaper inserts. Besides promoting the Web site, the insert contains listing of local nightclubs that have Lucky Nites, various entertainment happenings about town, as well as music and book recommendations.
NAMED `USA TODAY' HOT SITE
The site was also named by USA Today as a hot site, although without mention of the company behind it.
Although the tobacco marketer isn't mentioned on the Web site, Flair Communications, the Chicago promotion agency handling the launch of Lucky Strike with filters, is listed at the bottom of the site's home page. The site is registered to Digital Vision Communications, a Schaumburg, Ill.-based interactive agency that designed and maintains the site for Flair.
Flair referred questions to Brown & Williamson. Tom Fitzgerald, public affairs manager for the marketer, said the online area isn't really a Lucky Strike site.
"It's a lifestyle site and is a guide to clubs and other social activities in the Bay area," he said. "It's part of our test to see if it's a possible way to reach our male audience."
However, on various pages on the site, users are asked to fill out forms that includes a question asking if the user is a smoker. The form states that users must be at least 21 years old, though it doesn't say why there's an age restriction.
One executive with knowledge of the site said that some users, if they answer yes to the smoking question, are sent a T-shirt with the Lucky Strike logo. But another executive said the shirts bear the Circuit Breaker name.
The possibility of tobacco marketing on the Web has been a strong concern of tobacco critics, who want such marketing banned.
"It's incredibly deceptive," Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education, said of the Brown & Williamson site. "It demonstrates how tobacco companies are exploring the Web as a marketing tool in a youth-oriented site. They need to clearly identify that Brown & Williamson is sponsoring the site."
He said his group may complain to the Federal Trade Commission about the site.
Adding more fuel to the controversy is the fact that the site was recently listed by USA Today as a hot site to visit, and a USA Today hot site icon is displayed on the Circuit Breaker home page.
Sam Meddis, the USA Today writer who made the recommendation, made no mention of the Brown & Williamson connection in his one paragraph summary of the area, and said last week he didn't recall who ran the site.
Mr. Meddis said he also did not recall how he was told of the site.
"I get a lot of e-mail messages to check out sites, and it could have come that way," he said.
FTC EYED PRIVACY ISSUES
The FTC last year held a hearing on privacy issues at which one focus was disclosure requirements for marketers.
The Direct Marketing Association subsequently adopted a slightly changed version of the proposal that calls for marketers to place a notice on their Web sites.
The DMA code reads: "The notice should identify the marketer, disclose an e-mail and postal address at which it can be contacted, and state whether the marketer collects personal information on line from individuals."
Executives close to the Lucky Strike filters rollout said plans call for duplicating the San Francisco strategy: ads in local alternative weeklies, a heavy presence on the local club scene and localized Circuit Breaker Web sites. The cigarette was just launched in San Jose this month; other West Coast cities are targeted throughout the year, the executives said. Brown & Williamson declined to comment on future rollout plans.
Copyright February 1997, Crain Communications Inc.