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.
—Nikita Saxena, writing for The Caravan, about how Philip Morris India skirted the country’s restrictions on tobacco advertising by enlisting “brand ambassadors.”
Photo: Wikimedia Commons