reportage

Smokescreen

How a world-famous cigarette brand got around India’s restrictions on tobacco advertising.

By NIKITA SAXENA | 1 September 2014

ON A BREEZY SATURDAY EVENING in June 2011, a 21-year-old man made his way past the upscale farmhouses, historical ruins and monumentally large Hindu temple that mark the landscapes of Mehrauli and Chhatarpur in south Delhi, and arrived at a hotel called the Parkland Retreat. It wasn’t exactly the sort of place anyone would go for a taste of Delhi’s thriving nightlife, but that weekend the young man, a student of animation, would have begged to differ. So would 150 others, most of them students from Delhi and Mumbai, gathered at the hotel for a unique initiation.

The animation student felt a thrill as he entered the hotel. It grew when, as soon as he unlocked his luxurious room, he caught sight of a not-entirely-unexpected gift—a hamper of complimentary cigarettes and Zippo lighters. His excitement increased further over the next couple of days, filled with seminars and celebrations, and culminating in a party that he described, years later, as “a slice of real-life American Pie.”

“We started off with the bartending competition, and the alcohol was on the house, so all of us started drinking right then,” he told me. “By the time the party ‘started,’ most of us were either halfway drunk or completely drunk.” That was just the beginning. “They”—his hosts—“were going around with bottles of Chivas Regal, picking people up and literally choking them with alcohol.”

That evening, the Parkland Retreat’s plush banquet hall was the venue for a party themed “Gold, White and Black,” and was full of standees and banners adorned with the familiar logo of Marlboro cigarettes, of which the varieties sold in India include Marlboro Golds, Whites and Blacks. “They taught us how to party,” the student said, “Marlboro style.”

The event was a rite of passage for the student and his fellows, who had signed on to be “Marlboro Gold Connectors.” It was all part of a brand ambassador programme launched in 2009 by Philip Morris India, a wholesale trading company and a subsidiary of the global tobacco firm Philip Morris, which works on “fostering and promoting the sale of Marlboro cigarettes in India.” From 2009 until the programme was officially halted this June, the company hired “influencers” between the ages of roughly 18 and 25 to serve as “connectors” for Marlboro. Simply put, they were paid to promote Marlboro’s Gold and Red cigarettes among their friends and peers.

The Gold Connector orientation at Chhatarpur was one of many events that helped Philip Morris India reach out to the social circles of more than 200 connectors across Mumbai, Delhi, and later also Pune, a former employee of the company, who is based in Delhi, told me. Once picked, each connector was presented with up to two hundred cigarettes for their “personal stock.” At the beginning of each month, the connector also received a fixed number of cigarettes to be “sampled.” These usually came in packs of ten, and were handed out at events the connector attended. If that stock ran out, additional packs were provided on request. The connectors’ goal was simply to hand out as many samples as possible to the people they met—whether at nightclubs, at their own house parties (although these were disallowed in later cycles of the programme), or even at coffee shops. As proof, they were required to take pictures with the people receiving the cigarettes. Every week, the pictures were collated in a PowerPoint presentation, and sent to supervising programme managers.

Marlboro’s youth marketing programme, of which the connectors were a part, is something of an industry secret. It is little covered in the media, even though the workings of the brand and the entire tobacco industry are, at least notionally, open to public scrutiny. The Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products Act of 2003 is one of the most comprehensive laws ever enacted by the Indian government to check tobacco consumption. The COTPA prohibits smoking in public places, and the sale of tobacco products to minors; it also mandates, among other things, pictorial warnings on cigarette packs. Arguably its most formidable provision is Section 5, which prohibits almost all advertising or promotion of tobacco products.

This strict legal intolerance for tobacco promotion has put the industry perpetually on the lookout for ways it can still reach new consumers. The brand ambassador programme was one such method, helping bring Marlboro to the attention of young, hip smokers. And, for the duration of their participation, it changed the lives of the ambassadors themselves, who were offered considerable inducements to get their friends and peers to smoke with them. The secrecy that still shrouds the programme was effected in spite of its scale; for the first two years, Philip Morris India outsourced the logistics entirely to a Delhi-based company, Envisage Marketing and HR Solutions. In 2011, as the programme grew in scope and expense, it was handed over to a division of the advertising firm Leo Burnett India, the local chapter of the famous agency that designed the iconic “Marlboro Man” half a century ago.

Over the course of eight months, I spoke to over a dozen people who had participated in or helped organise the programme. I also met a number of lawyers and public-health activists battling the tobacco industry, and trying to counteract young Indians’ growing dependency on tobacco products, with all the health problems it entails. Activists told me India’s anti-tobacco legislation is as comprehensive as it is byzantine; but, they also pointed out, the government has largely failed to implement the laws in any sustained way. Several activists cast doubts on the legality of the programme when they heard of it. Repeated requests for clarification on the programme’s legal status from the companies involved produced either evasive answers, or outright denials of having done any wrong. One senior Philip Morris India official, who tried to convince me that this story was not worth my time, was happy to inform me that there were much larger violations of the law in the Indian tobacco industry—an indirect admission that the programme could not be said to obey the spirit of the law.

Between 1980 and 2012, the number of smokers in India grew from 74.5 million to 110 million, according to a 2014 study by the Washington DC-based Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation. The IHME’s Global Burden of Disease report, released in 2013, also stated that a million Indians died every year as a result of tobacco use. Most consumers of tobacco in India use smokeless tobacco exclusively, or use smokeless tobacco in addition to smoking. This means that large tobacco brands capture relatively little of the market share. It also means that such brands have good reasons to increase the country’s absolute number of smokers—rather than converting existing smokers from one brand to another—as the most reliable way of raising their revenues.

A study released last year by the research firm Edelweiss found that 83 percent of India’s adult cigarette smokers picked up the habit between the ages of 15 and 25. Today, about half of India’s population is under 25 years old. It’s not hard to see why Marlboro decided to specifically target college students with a rewards programme that encouraged “social sharing.” Former connectors—also described as ambassadors, and, in later cycles of the programme as “brand associates”—all students or young professionals, remembered their time in the programme as a haze of parties and privileges. In a country where it is illegal to promote tobacco by linking it to the glamour of the high life, the programme, for a brief time, allowed the ambassadors to indulge in that life simply by asking others if they wanted a cigarette. By showing them how to party, Marlboro-style, the brand was able to promote its cigarettes while just skirting the boundaries of formally, commercially and thoroughly illegally advertising them.

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, the Indian tobacco industry is thriving. In the quarter ending in June 2014, Godfrey Phillips India, the company that partners with Philip Morris India in manufacturing Marlboros in the country, reported a 13.86 percent increase in net sales. Last year, a London-based market research firm found that Marlboro was India’s fastest-growing cigarette brand, and that its brand value in the local market between 2008 and 2012 increased by a staggering 330 percent. The British brand Benson and Hedges, which came in second, grew by a mere 113 percent in comparison.

And yet, Marlboro’s market share in India is just about half a percent, largely because it was a late entrant into a field dominated by native tobacco giants. Godfrey Phillips India, a joint venture between Philip Morris and the diversified KK Modi Group, produces popular local brands such as Four Square, Red and White, Cavenders and North Pole. ITC Limited, a Kolkata-based conglomerate, looms large over the industry—it makes Classic, Gold Flake and Navy Cut cigarettes, among others. A behemoth which began life as the Imperial Tobacco Company in 1910, ITC is not just India’s biggest seller of cigarettes; it also has interests in consumer goods, hotels, and information technology. Its cigarette business grew by 19 percent in the last quarter.

Marlboro was launched as an imported product in 2003, five years after the Indian cigarette market opened to foreign direct investment. (In 2009, the brand came under the control of a license agreement between Philip Morris India and Godfrey Phillips India.) While it may be easy to ascribe Marlboro’s rise in India to the overall growth in the tobacco market, the brand’s triple-digit growth, and the fact that its nearest competitor trails it by over 200 percent, makes it hard to attribute its success solely to a rising tide that lifts all boats. Interviews with officials and former employees at Philip Morris India never yielded clear answers about the correlation between the youth ambassador programme and Marlboro’s extraordinary success, but the amount of time and effort invested in it for a full six years imply that it was considerably important to the company.

A former programme manager and Leo Burnett India employee, on condition of anonymity, explained to me that ITC’s methods of dominating the market were impossible to emulate. Its equation with retailers around India was unbeatable; because of its comparatively low production costs, the company offered them the highest profit margins. The programme manager recalled that when Marlboro approached street vendors and stall owners in parts of north India, they were told point-blank that any special treatment, such as preferential placement of Marlboro products on shelves or displays, was out of the question. He attributed this to ITC’s ability to strong-arm shopkeepers. If anyone gave a non-ITC brand particular prominence, the company could simply withhold its own wares, and no vendors could afford to see Wills, Classic or Gold Flake cigarettes disappear from their shelves. I spoke to six vendors and stall owners in and around Delhi, who all said they gave ITC brands greater visibility. Two of them also admitted that they would not give Marlboro any preference because they feared being denied ITC products.

A number of the anti-tobacco activists I spoke to claimed that ITC’s ability to lobby politicians was also unmatchable. In April 2010, citing reasons of public health, the government again banned all foreign investment in the tobacco products market. This was a major blow to the ambitions of companies such as Japan Tobacco, maker of brands such as Winston and Camel, which withdrew from the country. But, a Delhi-based health activist claimed, the retraction was actually a consequence of ITC’s fervent lobbying with the health and finance ministries, meant to thwart attempts by its foreign investor, British American Tobacco (which currently has about a 30 percent stake in ITC), to become the majority stakeholder. The government’s selective use of the health card drew disapproval from both multi-national companies and critics of the tobacco industry. As several publichealth activists pointed out, domestic tobacco products were just as likely to injure consumers’ health as those sold by foreign companies.

This was the environment in which Marlboro, the world’s best-selling cigarette brand, set out to play catch-up. Its Indian adventure did not begin successfully. A former Leo Burnett official—not one who had doubled up as programme manager—told me that the “grey” market for counterfeit Marlboro cigarettes, routed into India via Nepal, Bangladesh and China, was then already well established. But the low quality of the fake Marlboros hawked to Indian smokers had damaged perceptions of the brand. The former Philip Morris India official concurred. By his account, changing this perception once the company started manufacturing in India was an arduous challenge. It needed to communicate, to both existing and potential consumers, that Indian Marlboros were authentic and of high quality—and it had to do so without violating the country’s plethora of regulations.

According to the former Philip Morris official, the ambassador programme was conceptualised when the company hit a dead end in trying to give its products prominence in locations classified as “point of sale”—which included places that were not just dedicated tobacco retailers, but had permission to sell tobacco. “There was a huge problem in marketing to nightclubs and pubs,” he explained, “because ITC is present everywhere, and it was almost impossible to get into these outlets. That’s when we ideated on the implementation of word-of-mouth marketing through a brand ambassador programme.”

In 2009, the company started an experiment with “seven to eight guys,” he said, and ran it for between eight and ten months. Happy to be able to “start conversations with legal-age smokers,” the company soon scaled the programme up. By some accounts, through 2010 there were sixty ambassadors each in Delhi and Mumbai, exerting their influence among their peers at Delhi University campuses, and at Mumbai colleges such as St Xavier’s and Jai Hind.

The programme ran in cycles of three to four months, and the size of each cohort varied from twenty to forty. The former programme manager remembered that they once even ran it with just four ambassadors. The 2009 pilot was designed and executed entirely by Philip Morris India, but later cycles were outsourced. When we spoke, the former Leo Burnett official called himself a “big fan” of the whole idea. He was responsible for running the project in Delhi and Mumbai in 2012, with fifty “campus ambassadors” and five team leaders, also called “programme managers,” in each city. Indian tobacco regulations, he explained, are “such that you can only reach the smokers, your audience, at the point-of-sale, where the interaction or time spent is very little.” This made it impossible to gauge customers. “You look at other cafes and pubs, where you tend to meet smokers. Again, the engagement is very small. So, how could you improve the quality of engagement? Now, a conversation with friends is more detailed, more open-ended. The other person is receptive. That’s the whole premise of the programme—how can we bring a brand into a friendly conversation?”

A sub-section of Section 5 of the COTPA makes an exception to the blanket ban on advertising in the case of tobacco products displayed “at the entrance or inside a warehouse or a shop” where such products are offered for distribution or sale. In short, if an establishment sells cigarettes, it may advertise and display them. The former Philip Morris India official pointed this out to me while explaining the programme’s legality. “The trade ambassadors or the brand ambassadors we hired were not allowed to sample anywhere at the outside places,” he said. But, he added, the exemption extended, under the right conditions, to coffee shops. “It’s not like you can sit at a coffee shop and you can do it, unless it is a point of sale. In between when we tied up with Barista and Costa Coffee, they were actually converted into point-of-sale.”

In 2011, the coffee-shop franchise Barista started selling cigarettes at its cafes. That same year, the company tied up with Marlboro’s connector programme. Connectors were given booklets, called “passports,” to hand out to friends, whom they could then take to select outlets. On each visit, passport holders received a complimentary pack of cigarettes, and a stamp in their passport. A stipulated number of stamps resulted in a discount on future bills. Once a passport was completely filled, the holder could return it to a connector, who in turn gave it to a team leader. In return, the passport holder received merchandise from Marlboro, including two packs of cigarettes, two lighters, a bottle opener, four shot glasses and an ash tray.

For the animation student who attended the orientation at the Parkland Retreat, this was a blessing. “I completed most of my targets,” he said, “by taking people I knew to the Barista at Select Citywalk”—the South Delhi mall. “I used to have a lot of friends who, well, didn’t mind a free meal.”

Taking friends to places such as these was a crucial part of the programme for the early connectors. So was attending, and sometimes organising, house parties. When I asked the former Philip Morris official how house parties qualified as “points of sale,” his reply was fairly baffling. “House parties were allowed only when it was their personal parties, not if it was a commercial party. Commercial parties were not allowed.”

As the former Leo Burnett official told me, “The model is effective. It has more recall and it has more retention. We all have a certain friend in our group who is full of energy, the planning kind who says, ‘Let’s go wild.’ An everyday guy who has a sense of style and whose endorsement can influence your choice of brand. If I get that person to be an advocate for my brand, it’s priceless.”

IN 1981, a Philip Morris study in the United States proclaimed, “Today’s teenager is tomorrow’s potential regular customer.” In 1984, RJ Reynolds, America’s second largest tobacco company, released a report that stated: “The renewal of the market stems almost entirely from 18-year-old smokers. No more than 5 percent of smokers start after the age of 24. The brand loyalty of the 18-year-old smokers far outweighs any tendencies to switch with age.”

Tobacco companies’ literature on their market research no longer describes their challenges so baldly, but the lessons outlined in the 1980s have been well learned. In 2001, the New York Times published a report titled, ‘Enticing Third World Youth; Big Tobacco is Accused of Crossing the Age Line.’ It found that 17-year-old Albanian high-school students were being inducted into an ambassador programme as “Marlboro Girls,” to sample and promote Philip Morris products.

More recently, Marlboro has courted trouble for pushing the boundaries on marketing tobacco to younger users in other countries. In 2010, Leo Burnett developed a global “We Marlboro” campaign to revamp the brand’s image among “young adult smokers.” The campaign was all about adventure and ambition. “A Maybe Never Reached The Top,” the ad copy read; and, “A Maybe Never Wrote A Song.” The punchline was “Don’t Be A Maybe, Be A Marlboro.” In October 2013, Germany banned the campaign’s promotional images after ruling that they were inducing children as young as 14 to smoke. (The same campaign is still running in over fifty countries.)

As the details of the brand ambassador programme in India grew clearer, it seemed plain that Marlboro was attempting to foster consumer engagement by trading influence within young people’s peer groups. Several connectors told me that one of the “deliverables” in their contracts was “sampling” at parties—requiring them to work in an environment where peer pressure was high and social inhibitions low was clearly an advantage. For young people hoping to look cool and feel good, the allure of a cigarette, offered for free as a path into a world where coolness and feeling good were accessible, would not be easy to resist.

THE POINT-OF-SALE REGULATIONS were crucial to the tobacco industry’s efforts to promote their brands legally, or at least without overtly violating the COTPA, if the elaborate legal back-and-forth over these provisions is any indication. In July 2013, an NGO called Health for Millions filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court, challenging an interim decision that the Bombay High Court had made some years previously. In 2005, an association of tobacco traders had filed a petition before the court to contest the restrictions on advertising at point-of-sale locations, and to challenge the definitions of indirect advertising. Later that year, the court ruled for a seven-year stay on the implementation of the advertising provisions of the COTPA. (This was an interim decision, made absolute in 2006.) The bench hearing the Health for Millions case rescinded the Bombay High Court’s decision; Justice GS Singhvi, who led the bench, criticised the central government for not moving faster to implement the laws. His judgement accused the centre of “conniving” with the tobacco lobby.

The first of India’s regulations restricting the advertising of the substance was passed less than forty years ago. In 1975, the Cigarettes Act stipulated that a statutory warning, “Cigarette smoking is injurious to health,” be printed on all cigarette packets. In 1998, the Advertising Standards Council of India outlawed advertising to underage consumers, and prohibited any promotion that suggested tobacco products are safe, healthy or popular. In 2000, the Cable Television Networks (Amendment) Act abolished direct and indirect tobacco advertising on cable channels. The COTPA, in 2003, put a new framework of regulations and prohibitions in place, and in February 2004 India became one of the first countries to ratify the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

If India has a tobacco problem, an activist from Gurgaon told me, it is clearly not for a lack of laws. The problem, he said, is that “we don’t have a very organised watch-dog body. So while tobacco activists are quite active, a systemic way will have to emerge for us to catch such violations and take strong action against the companies doing it.”

Vandana Shah, a US-based anti-tobacco activist I spoke with when she visited India this summer, confirmed to me that point-of-sale advertising was a major area of potential violation in India. “This is clearly not an industry that plays by the rules,” Shah said. “Peer-to-peer encouragement is direct promotion—a clear violation of the laws in most countries, and definitely in India.”

Peer-to-peer recruitment programmes are not unique to the tobacco industry. Red Bull, the beverage brand, recruits “Red Bull Girls” to sample its products to college students; Tata Motors, when it launched its low-cost Nano model, ran an ambassador programme that let young people drive the car for a time for free, in order to generate buzz for it on social media. There are household names in consumer goods, such as Amway and Tupperware, which rely on mammoth pyramid schemes that get friends to sell their wares to friends.

Nor is Marlboro the only tobacco company to adopt a peer-to-peer approach. Two of the connectors I spoke to, as well as all my interviewees at Philip Morris India and Leo Burnett India, vouched that ITC and Godfrey Phillips India also have brand ambassador programmes, or have had them in the past. The former programme manager from Leo Burnett claimed ITC had approached students from Venkateshwara College at Delhi University in 2013, promising them stipends of around Rs 15,000 per month for acting as ambassadors. When I contacted ITC, I received an email that stated: “ITC does not have any such scheme and nor do we have any such ‘Brand Ambassadors.’” Godfrey Phillips India did not respond to my questions.

Seven months after I began work on this story, Saibal Roy Choudhury, the director of corporate affairs at Philip Morris India, reached out to me before I could reach out to him. He said he had heard I was writing about the company, and wished to talk. We met at a Starbucks outlet in Lajpat Nagar, south Delhi. For an hour, he tried to get a sense of what I knew of the ambassador programme, which he insisted was “essentially market research.” Following this meeting, I sent him a list of questions, routed through Philip Morris India’s marketing department. Finally, in an official emailed response, he said only that “Market insight programs are routinely conducted by companies in the fast moving consumer goods sector. All our activities comply with the law. For competitive reasons we don’t publicly disclose details about our market insights.”

“Anything that you do in excess, is always going to be bad,” the former Philip Morris India official told me, in an echo of Choudhury’s professional reticence. “If somebody is a smoker and you know that person is a smoker, how does it make a difference?”

I asked the veteran advertising executive Santosh Desai about this attitude. “If free sampling is a big part of a programme of this kind, then it inevitably promotes a habit, particularly when you’re talking about people who haven’t become smokers in an established way,” he said. “Then, at an early stage, any sampling becomes a form of inducement. It is tantamount to helping people along in developing a habit or creating a habit.”

MONIKA ARORA, a director at the Public Health Foundation of India, told me that youth programmes “delivered through the peer group” were always the most efficient and effective. She was talking about the techniques she used to create anti-smoking schemes for the PHFI, but, as she pointed out, the psychology behind those initiatives was the same as that driving the Gold Connector programme. “If an offer of tobacco is coming through your peer group,” she said, it creates a stronger incentive to smoke than, say, seeing someone smoke in a movie, or in your general vicinity. “That whole elusive association with fun, partying,” she said. “Using tobacco as an essential commodity is something that is worrying us.”

There was nothing elusive about the structure underpinning the fun and partying of the Marlboro programme. LetsIntern, which bills itself as a “platform for connecting students with customised opportunities for part-time work,” was founded in 2010 by Rishabh Gupta, Mayank Bhateja and Pranay Swarup. That same year, Gupta, Bhateja and Swarup also founded Envisage Marketing and HR Solutions. When Philip Morris India went looking for a company to expand its ambassador programme after its successful pilot scheme in 2009, it soon decided on Envisage. The firm had good reason for doing so. Envisage’s responsibilities were to include recruiting campus ambassadors, and LetsIntern had already begun to build a formidable network of ambitious college students. Envisage’s ready access to LetsIntern’s database, the former Philip Morris India employee told me, had tipped the scales in its favour.

When I spoke to Bhateja, Swarup and Gupta, though, they all denied any link to the ambassador programme. Bhateja told me he was aware of the scheme, but had no idea who had handled it. Swarup and Gupta, together on a conference call, said only that LetsIntern “has had nothing to do with Philip Morris.” When I asked them if LetsIntern and Envisage had shared any information or personnel, their responses were non-committal; they said only that the two companies had “some common people.” But the former Philip Morris India official confirmed to me that Bhateja, Swarup and Gupta had indeed worked on the ambassador programme. The Ministry of Corporate Affairs lists them as the directors of Envisage as well as LetsIntern; on their LinkedIn profiles, all three listed themselves as co-founders of both companies.

Gupta’s LinkedIn page includes a glowing recommendation from Gagan Chugh, a former “LAMPs (Legal Age Meeting Points) Supervisor” with Philip Morris International, for his work in “developing a personalised program that proved to be one of the best marketing tools in India.” Also on LinkedIn, one former Envisage employee wrote that he worked as a programme manager for Philip Morris, “tapping the party circuit throughout Delhi and making the brand visible in all gatherings through means of subtle sampling.”

My requests to interview Saurabh Varma, Leo Burnett’s current CEO, were denied. Arvind Sharma, who headed the company in 2010 and was CEO until October 2013, told me that although there had been “conversations” about starting an ambassador programme, he could not recollect whether it had actually been implemented. Later in our conversation, he said he remembered the programme may have taken place. He wasn’t sure; there were “so many things” happening at the agency.

The connectors Envisage hired in the three years it ran the programme were much more forthcoming about what the scheme was really like. Zeeshan Khan, an aspiring musician and a student of St Xavier’s College, joined the programme in 2012 to make ends meet while trying to record an album. The hiring process began with a written application, followed by an interview, designed to gauge how social the applicant was. Candidates were asked to submit an array of personal details—the number of contacts in their online messenger lists, the number of their Facebook friends, the average number of parties they attended in a month, and the number of cigarettes they smoked in a day.

Once chosen, the connectors underwent a training process that ran over two or three days. The Chhatarpur session attended by the animation student was one iteration, and was overseen by representatives from both Envisage and Philip Morris India. On day one, new recruits got an intensive crash-course in the brand history of Marlboro, its positioning in the national and international markets, its product strategy and market reach in India. The goal, the animation student told me, was to equip connectors to “defend their brand.” Training seminars were followed by group activities, in which connectors were encouraged to apply the marketing strategies they had just learned about. They were asked, for instance, to plan the perfect party for their peer group, in a way that also conspicuously showcased the Marlboro brand.

On the second day, the connectors got an overview of the manufacturing processes at Marlboro, and were further immersed in the brand. All through the exercise, complimentary cigarettes were in steady supply. The connectors were actively discouraged from smoking other brands. The animation student, in our first conversation, told me the particpants smoked something like five to ten packets every day. I was incredulous, and said so; he hastily amended the figure to “two or three” packs a day.

In a later conversation he told me, with an air of finality, “They made a lot of chain-smokers during those three days, because there were so many smokes. In three days, I smoked as much I would have in a week, or ten days. Everywhere there were cigarettes. One pack at lunch; one pack for dinner; your room has two packs; even before you came to the training you got one carton. It was crazy.”

Though all the connectors received physical copies of their contracts for the programme, most of them told me they had misplaced theirs. Despite numerous attempts, I was never able to locate one. When I asked connectors if they’d received any email communication about the programme which they could forward me, they all told me that the organisers had never sent them any email, or shared any information over the internet. The only exceptions, it seemed, were the weekly PowerPoint presentations the connectors emailed in to their programme managers as reports.

Among other things, I was told, the contract required connectors to confirm that they were above 18 years of age, that they were smokers, and that they would not “sample” to minors or non-smokers. Remuneration was based broadly on the targets they achieved, to incentivise performance, but everyone received a stipend of between four thousand and six thousand rupees a month—a princely sum for a college student looking to make an extra buck. All the connectors I spoke to also mentioned a peculiar clause in the contract. It explicitly stated that the connector was participating in the programme out of his or her free will, and that all liability for any health problems incurred by them or the recipients of their cigarette handouts, would be borne by the connector alone.

Last month, I asked Hemant Goswami, a lawyer with long experience in anti-tobacco activism, about the validity of such a clause. Goswami argued that it could not discharge a tobacco company of its liabilities. “A contract to do an illegal act is void ab initio,” he told me. “It’s an illegal agreement, if any.”

UNTIL 2012, all the connectors received high-end Zippo lighters during the training process. These were the sort of luxury items that the connectors could flaunt with pride, since most of their friends were unlikely to be able to afford them. There was also encouragement for hard work. Some performers in the programme, the former programme manager told me, received “an all-paid trip to Ferrari World”—a theme park in Abu Dhabi. “We would give out iPads, passes for parties,” he said. When the superstar DJ Armin van Buuren played in Mumbai, “we ensured that all the connectors went, and they got a voucher for a beverage or two.” And there were other, even more scintillating incentives. The former programme manager told me that in 2011, connectors were rewarded for meeting their targets with Ferrari merchandise. The top performers from Delhi and Mumbai got paddock passes for the first Formula One Indian Grand Prix, at a cost to the brand of about Rs 3 lakh per person.

But the costliness of the lifestyle was not the thing that gave the connectors’ profile its definition and polish. “You’re not after the money,” the former Leo Burnett official said. “You’re after experience, and we built that experience. We said: You know what, this stuff is not available to you no matter how rich you are. It is only available to you if you are a part of this programme. So you have to elevate the brand to keep the connectors engaged. Your brand ambassadors are consumers too. They need you to give them credibility, trust and an alibi for their choice. Everyone needs an alibi.” He could not tell me how much these “alibis” cost exactly, but he estimated that the brand spent between Rs 20,000 and Rs 25,000 on each ambassador per cycle.

In March this year, I spoke to a Delhi University student who became a Marlboro “brand associate” in 2011—without ever smoking a cigarette in his life. He was, he claimed, one of the top three performers across the country that year. His sole motivation was the Formula One paddock pass for the Grand Prix at the Buddh Circuit in Noida. His team leader did grow suspicious about his lack of a smoking habit at one point, but the student covered by saying he was trying to quit. He was so persuasive, and such a successful sampler, that his handlers let him off the hook.

“There was this one time during the training when there were these six kinds of cigarettes with different blends, and obviously these guys wanted all of us to try it,” he told me. “At that time, I just went to the loo, because I didn’t want them to get to know that I don’t smoke. They may have chucked me out if they knew, but I was smarter than them.”

In the Envisage years, connectors’ review meetings with their team leaders were often held in pubs, with bills footed by the firm. Until the programme decided to exclude house parties from its purview, connectors were encouraged to host parties and use them to socialise with ever more people. “There were two parameters,” the Delhi University student explained. “One was the number of people being sampled to, and second was the quality of the sampling. Envisage was actually focusing more on the number, because that was their deliverable to Marlboro. But for Marlboro, the focus was on quality sampling.” So house parties were more useful to the cigarette company—they involved fewer people, and the hosting connector would know proportionately many more of them. “You spend more with them and tell them about the cigarette rather than just giving them free samples,” the student explained. Hosting a house party as a connector boosted their chances at scoring incentives; connectors could apply through their team leaders for a karaoke kit, a DJ, and as many cigarettes as they required for the party.

By engaging college students, the programme may have violated another provision of the COTPA. Section 6 of the act bans the sale of tobacco products within 100 yards of any educational institution. As Arora pointed out, this programme was not engaged in selling products. But by hiring college students to promote cigarettes, it contradicts the legal intent of the law, which aims to reduce access to cigarettes among young adults.

The senior Philip Morris official who explained to me that this programme was hardly the tobacco industry’s only violation of the COTPA regulations was certainly telling the truth. For example, the COTPA also says that no trademark or brand name of any tobacco product may be promoted “in exchange for sponsorship, gift, prize or scholarship,” but few cigarette companies observe this rule. ITC was recently served a notice by education authorities in Tamil Nadu for sponsoring spelling bees at schools across India that were broadcast on a major cable channel every Sunday. And the legal questions surrounding Marlboro’s connector programme also apply to the fairly open sampling of cigarettes at pubs and clubs by many other tobacco companies.

No school-goers were ever involved in the Marlboro programme as far as I could tell—but several stories made it appear that the programme was on thin ice regarding age restrictions related to tobacco. While the programme’s representatives vehemently denied targeting a particular demographic, and were quick to quote the clause in the connectors’ contracts that forbade sampling to minors and non-smokers, four of the connectors I spoke to admitted that it was impossible to guarantee that they had not broken that proviso.

“The clauses are never meant to be a deterrent,” Vandana Shah told me. “They are there in order to cover tobacco companies legally—even though it is not going to work in India because this promotion is completely prohibited. I think this whole clause is farcical. They are actually setting them up with the incentives to violate the terms of the contract and reach as many people as they can, whether or not they are minors or non-smokers.”

When I asked him about specifically sampling to minors, Khan paused. “There was no argument about it,” he said, describing the pictures he submitted every week as proof of his sampling. “The people from Leo Burnett, or the marketing team, did not point out, ‘I think that’s a minor.’ They were more concerned about whether these pictures were candid or not; how many pictures were there and how many people were we sampling to. There was never really any check as to who the people are going and giving the cigarettes to. It was more about how many people were covered.”

A media student from Mumbai, who was also once a campus ambassador, told me, “From a photo you can’t really tell if a person is 18 or 15. It used to happen all the time, with these Junior College people”—students in grades 11 and 12—“who were more than happy to be taking samples.”

I asked Khan if this sort of ambiguity extended to the other prohibition in the contract, on sampling cigarettes to non-smokers. “Suppose there’s a group and you are talking to some people,” he replied sheepishly. “There are smokers and there are non-smokers, but everybody drinks. I see the person who is smoking and I approach that person first. Then, say there are women around and I offer them the smoke as well. They’d say they don’t smoke. Sometimes, I’d ask if she wants to. She’d say sure, why not. Yeah—so it did happen. It happened a couple of times.”

IN MARCH THIS YEAR, on a website for local classified advertisements, a man calling himself “Abhay Sharma” posted a job opening for “50-70 boys for free sampling of marlboro cigarette for 10-11 month,” between the ages of 19 and 24. Promoters, it said, would be paid Rs 14,000; supervisors, who would oversee “at least 15-20 boys but not below that,” would get Rs 18,000. I called the listed number, and discovered that the advertiser had indeed hired cigarette samplers for Marlboro in March, but was told that the association had since been indefinitely terminated. Marlboro had not paid him for some time, the advertiser complained. He did ask, however, if I was interested in working as a “sample girl” at this year’s Indian Premier League games, for a beverage company whose name he did not divulge.

Marlboro’s last programme cycle took place in 2013, and the scheme was officially shut down this June. Evidently, the programme had changed over time. A student from Gargi College in Delhi, who was a Marlboro brand associate in 2013, told me that her contract did not allow sampling at house parties. The focus instead was on “Legal Age Meeting Points,” and especially on clubs that hosted what she described, rather mysteriously, as “party-parties.” The connectors no longer took pictures, but were accompanied by “team leaders” who verified their work. The former programme manager from Leo Burnett told me that there were no plans for a new cycle for next year. The company directive, he said, was presently to renew focus on distribution and sales, rather than personal messages.

None of the connectors I interviewed participated in the programme for more than one cycle, even though in most cases they were asked if they would like to. “I didn’t want to do it any further after it was over,” Khan told me. “Unfortunately my parents got to find out about my habit, and there was a lot of mess. I wanted to quit, anyway.”

After Khan quit, he got a call from someone at Leo Burnett, he said. “I was out of town, and they wanted to enquire if I wanted to be a part of the next cycle,” he recalled. “I told them I might give it a thought, and asked them to call me later, but they never did. So yeah, good for me.”

The animation student, once enchanted by the weekend-long party he went to at the Parkland Retreat, also never went back. “I didn’t want to do the programme again because I saw its evils,” he told me. “I was just tired all the time. I didn’t want to party for another year, I just wanted to be at home. During the programme it was fine—it was all about being happy, partying, and going out. When you’re drunk you don’t think about these things, and I was drunk most of the time. But once it ended, and we resumed our lives, I realised that this was really tiring—not just psychologically but physically also.”

Once, I asked what he thought of the programme’s ethical implications. His reply was short. “Sab chori hi toh hai yaar, bas koi kehta nahi hai”—It’s all a crime; only, no one says so.

 

Correction: The print version of this article incorrectly identified Saurabh Varma as the CEO and Arvind Sharma as a former CEO of Envisage. Varma is the CEO of Leo Burnett India, and Sharma a former CEO of that company. The Caravan regrets the error.

ON A BREEZY SATURDAY EVENING in June 2011, a 21-year-old man made his way past the upscale farmhouses, historical ruins and monumentally large Hindu temple that mark the landscapes of Mehrauli and Chhatarpur in south Delhi, and arrived at a hotel called the Parkland Retreat. It wasn’t exactly the sort of place anyone would go for a taste of Delhi’s thriving nightlife, but that weekend the young man, a student of animation, would have begged to differ. So would 150 others, most of them students from Delhi and Mumbai, gathered at the hotel for a unique initiation.

The animation student felt a thrill as he entered the hotel. It grew when, as soon as he unlocked his luxurious room, he caught sight of a not-entirely-unexpected gift—a hamper of complimentary cigarettes and Zippo lighters. His excitement increased further over the next couple of days, filled with seminars and celebrations, and culminating in a party that he described, years later, as “a slice of real-life American Pie.”

“We started off with the bartending competition, and the alcohol was on the house, so all of us started drinking right then,” he told me. “By the time the party ‘started,’ most of us were either halfway drunk or completely drunk.” That was just the beginning. “They”—his hosts—“were going around with bottles of Chivas Regal, picking people up and literally choking them with alcohol.”

That evening, the Parkland Retreat’s plush banquet hall was the venue for a party themed “Gold, White and Black,” and was full of standees and banners adorned with the familiar logo of Marlboro cigarettes, of which the varieties sold in India include Marlboro Golds, Whites and Blacks. “They taught us how to party,” the student said, “Marlboro style.”

The event was a rite of passage for the student and his fellows, who had signed on to be “Marlboro Gold Connectors.” It was all part of a brand ambassador programme launched in 2009 by Philip Morris India, a wholesale trading company and a subsidiary of the global tobacco firm Philip Morris, which works on “fostering and promoting the sale of Marlboro cigarettes in India.” From 2009 until the programme was officially halted this June, the company hired “influencers” between the ages of roughly 18 and 25 to serve as “connectors” for Marlboro. Simply put, they were paid to promote Marlboro’s Gold and Red cigarettes among their friends and peers.

The Gold Connector orientation at Chhatarpur was one of many events that helped Philip Morris India reach out to the social circles of more than 200 connectors across Mumbai, Delhi, and later also Pune, a former employee of the company, who is based in Delhi, told me. Once picked, each connector was presented with up to two hundred cigarettes for their “personal stock.” At the beginning of each month, the connector also received a fixed number of cigarettes to be “sampled.” These usually came in packs of ten, and were handed out at events the connector attended. If that stock ran out, additional packs were provided on request. The connectors’ goal was simply to hand out as many samples as possible to the people they met—whether at nightclubs, at their own house parties (although these were disallowed in later cycles of the programme), or even at coffee shops. As proof, they were required to take pictures with the people receiving the cigarettes. Every week, the pictures were collated in a PowerPoint presentation, and sent to supervising programme managers.

Marlboro’s youth marketing programme, of which the connectors were a part, is something of an industry secret. It is little covered in the media, even though the workings of the brand and the entire tobacco industry are, at least notionally, open to public scrutiny. The Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products Act of 2003 is one of the most comprehensive laws ever enacted by the Indian government to check tobacco consumption. The COTPA prohibits smoking in public places, and the sale of tobacco products to minors; it also mandates, among other things, pictorial warnings on cigarette packs. Arguably its most formidable provision is Section 5, which prohibits almost all advertising or promotion of tobacco products.

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Nikita Saxena is a web editor at The Caravan.

READER'S COMMENTS

5 thoughts on “Smokescreen”

This is the same strategy that is used by pharma companies to promote their products amingst doctors by leaving samples of their medicines so that the doctro per chance may get addicted to the brand.

Just a day before I saw the article up here, I had 2 of these programme guys tell me about it. They mentioned that this was what they did, and that it was great, and that they got free smokes and parties all the time. They enjoyed the period, but don’t seem to notice how it might have damaged them. I was surprised. I’d never heard of this, and would’ve been livid had I known any of my friends do it.

Lovely article and very important.

On a different note, Grooveshark employees are being held guilty on copyright infringement. In my head, this is very similar. You do something you think is completely fair and legal, till you suddenly learn it isn’t.

Wow… this practice is as old as the hills. My uncle was the 50’s equivalent of a “connector” while he was a student @ Brown University. He passed away in 2006 at the age of 69 after a lifetime of tobacco related ailments.

Hey just wanted to give you a quick heads up
and let you know a few of the pictures aren’t loading properly.
I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue.
I’ve tried it in two different browsers and both show the same
results.

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