edging furtively toward the swinging strobe lights, flickering torches and steel lattice archway, I might imagine I've stumbled onto the set of the next Cher video were it not for the massive Definiti signs hanging just ahead and being projected into the night sky. I probe the thick-necked bouncer, What is Definiti anyway? But before I even reach the ticket-taker I'm given my first clues. The glint of glass and soft spotlights draws my eye to a shiny display case a few feet from the door - du Maurier cigarettes, ashtrays and Zippos nestled safely within. A few paces further, the thumping of house music grows louder and a beautiful model in a red satin corset holds a tray loaded with row after perfect row of red and white cigarette packs.
A tip from a Web site advertised in NOW brings me here tonight. Nothing on the site tells me it's pushing smokes. There are just DJ listings, music streaming and half-clad girls asking me if I can handle the heat.
But here I am, one of hundreds slowly infiltrating Lotus's Lombard Street dance floor, drawn into a night of booty-shaking by a sneaky guerrilla marketing strategy designed to get around new federal laws.
No self-congratulatory signs say "Brought to you by Big Tobacco," and banners for Definiti are kept far away from any promos for Canada's most popular brand of cigarettes. There's little to make anyone think that Definiti is anything more than your average fly-by-night promoter except for the red overhaul of the club's decor... and of course the cigarette girls.
"What we have here is Imperial Tobacco seeing what they can get away with," says Francis Thompson of the Non-Smokers' Rights Association, one of the groups that lobbied for the anti-tobacco advertising regs that took effect October 1.
Now that cigarette names have been torn down from theatre marquees, jazz fest signs and (after much heated debate) race car tracks across the country, bars are essentially the only legal venue left for the tobacco industry to tout their brands - away from the eyes of impressionable minors, as the law demands. And under the guise of Definiti, du Maurier can infiltrate scenes as diverse as the artists it sponsors, from reggae crooners like Wayne Wonder to Greek singing sensation Lambis Livieratos and gay house legend Hex Hector. It just can't tell anyone.
"The basic structure is, they advertise the concert and don't tell anybody that the tobacco industry had anything to do with it, and when you get to the concert it's basically a big cigarette promo," says Thompson.
Montreal-based Imperial Tobacco, which owns both the du Maurier and Players brands, says that it's doing nothing wrong. "The law has been very clear in terms of what avenues are available to us to communicate to consumers and we are respecting the laws as they exist, " says Imperial Tobacco spokesperson Christina Dona. "The laws have not banned competition."
Even the acting compliance manager of Health Canada's tobacco control program, Mathew Cook, half-heartedly agrees. "There's really nothing that says they can't sell cigarettes in bars or have people sell cigarettes." But Cook says the feds are currently investigating whether scantily clad cigarette girls and boys are in fact promoting more than just the availability of product and are thus in contravention of the new regs. The question is whether Health Canada's 60 inspectors can stay up past midnight to fully scope out the scene. Cook insists that some are starting to.
Meanwhile, club-goer Keith Loukes wonders why anyone cares. "The demographic that's going out to clubs is the same demographic that's smoking anyway."
Perhaps, but Thompson says cornering the trendy club scene is the most effective tactic Big Tobacco has left for targeting the population at large.
"When you're in an environment where you can't do (mass marketing), what do you do?" asks Thompson. "If you can convince the right people that smoking du Maurier is really cool, you have some hope of dispersing that (mindset) through the population."
Youth marketer Max Lendermen says that being forced to take on such targeted guerrilla marketing is only sharpening Big Tobacco's skills. "They're just ahead of the curve because of all the restrictions on them. I think they're trailblazing."
Imperial Tobacco is really banking on the sophistication of the consumer, adds Lendermen. "The company's thinking, we don't need to have our name splashed across everything at a bar or concert for consumers to know that it's an Imperial Tobacco event."
But every clubber I ask tonight is oblivious to Imperial's role in the event - despite all its efforts at making subliminal and not-so-subliminal connections between Definiti and du Maurier. Even one of Definiti's own crew members tells me that du Maurier is just the party's vending machine of choice, entirely separate from the promoter. How is he to know that Rumbling Wall Events, which operates Definiti, is a subsidiary of Imperial Tobacco?
Meanwhile, Imperial is struggling to strike the new Tobacco Act from the law books. They've already lost in Quebec's superior court and are hedging their bets on an appeal. "We're fighting for a piece of a shrinking pie," says Dona. And with every per cent of Canada's smoker's market worth $20 million in profits alone, few would blame them.