Even smoking ban PR campaigns fuel controversy

Share this:
March 21, 2005 // UPDATED 1:53 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Need a reminder the city's smoking ban is kicking in March 31? How about 800,000 breath mints?

The candy is just part of the "Fresh Air" campaign, funded by the antismoking group Minnesota Partnership for Action Against Tobacco (MPAAT) and Blue Cross/Blue Shield. The $415,000 effort includes a media campaign featuring print ads, a radio jingle and a painted light rail transit car. The goal: remind people the city and county bans are coming and, as one spokeswoman said, "generate some enthusiasm."

Most of the money will be spent by April 3, which has at least one Downtown bar owner fuming. Mike Jennings, president of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, said MPAAT - funded with state tobacco settlement money - failed to listen to the hospitality industry.

Bar and restaurant owners preferred a stronger public-relations push once the ban begins, to boost business, he said. Jennings also contends that MPAAT's plan to give "Fresh Air" drink coasters to bars and restaurants would only serve to anger the already-miffed smoking patrons.

A second campaign, "Minneapolis: Done Smokin' - Still Hot," specifically promotes Minneapolis bars and eateries. The partnership of hospitality and healthcare industries and the city will run a three-month, $500,000 media effort and a Web site with printable restaurant coupons to promote post-ban dining.

Meanwhile, some bar owners have banded together to fight the local bans. They filed suit in Hennepin County District Court for a temporary restraining order, arguing the state, not local jurisdictions, has the authority to regulate smoking. Judge John McShane will hear arguments Tuesday, March 22, 8 a.m. at the Southdale courtroom, 7009 York Ave. S., room 229.

Happy hour for your lungs

Andrea Mowery, MPAAT's director of marketing and communications, said her group would use $200,000, or approximately half of the money, for media: newspaper ads, 70 bathroom ads, 15 bus signs and radio spots ("It's crisp, it's clean ... It's mighty good to breathe.") MPAAT also sent special bar and restaurant tool kits to affected establishments.

The kits had 800,000 breath mints and 400,000 drink coasters, with slogans such as:

- "Fresh Air -100 percent smoke free: It's like happy hour for your lungs!"

- "No carbs! No fat! No carcinogens! No smoking please."

- "Now more fun than ever! Breathing."

Mowery said the campaign is to assure "there is a lot of awareness about [the ban] and people see that it is a real positive thing."

MPAAT is spending $350,000, Blue Cross/Blue Shield $65,000. The campaign hopes 95 percent of the Twin Cities adults will see the message at least 18 times.

Jennings, who owns Waterhouse District watering holes Rosen's, The Refuge Bar & Grill and The District Bar & Grill, disagrees with the timing of MPAAT's campaign and the use of drink coasters. MPAAT should have worked more closely with those businesses most directly affected by the ban, he said.

Mowery said that MPAAT invited industry to a focus group. Jennings said he was a point person to set up MPAAT's business focus group - which is where the discussion stopped.

"We hadn't really heard what their plan was and how they were going to react or respond to [bar owners'] concerns," he said. "I think it is totally senseless to be advertising in advance something of this sort. People are going to know about it through the standard media.

"MPAAT seems to be more concerned about warning people, and not doing anything to help promote business after the smoking ban has occurred."

Mowery didn't have an answer for why the conversation stopped, saying only that MPAAT would look for more opportunities.

Jennings provided a summary of MPAAT's focus group research. It said business owners were most concerned about losing customers and income; safety; logistical and litter problems from patrons smoking outside; and patron ill-will towards bars and restaurants that have to enforce the ordinance (essentially, the businesses, many of which opposed the ban, becoming the "bad guy").

Jennings said using the Fresh Air coasters didn't make sense, given potential customer backlash. For some patrons, the coasters "will be rubbing it in their faces," he said.

Jennings guessed the vast majority of bars would not use them. "In the case of bars where half their customers smoke, there is nothing to be gained by it. It can only do harm," he said.

That said, the coasters have been sighted at some establishments, including the Red Dragon, 2116 Lyndale Ave. S.

Mowery defended the MPAAT campaign, saying her group had coordinated with the city/hospitality/healthcare efforts, a separate ad campaign running until May.

The bar and restaurant owners and managers had varying opinions about the coasters, she said. "We think some will find it to be a fun, upbeat, positive way to help people make the transition to smoke-free," she said.

Asked if the MPAAT campaign was intended to help businesses that could be hurt by the smoking ban, Mowery said: "I think we would probably disagree with the premise that restaurants would be hurt. There are a lot of other communities that have shown in fact that is not the case."

Coupons now online

The city/hospitality/healthcare effort takes a more business-focused approach.

Jack Davis, chief executive officer for Hennepin County Medical Society (HCMS) said in a news release: "We understand that some restaurant and bar owners are concerned about going smoke free and the impact it may have on their businesses. Our hopes are that our marketing effort will make them feel more confident about the smoke-free ordinance."

The partnership raised $150,000 privately, and it will leverage $500,000 media buy including in-kind donations, said Karen Gruenberg, vice president of marketing for the Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association (GMCVA).

Some ads target programs with a suburban/family demographic to encourage people to come to city bars and restaurants. "We have a series of ads running in the suburban issues of the StarTribune," Gruenberg said; KARE 11's "morning and Saturday shows tend to attract more of a family audience, more of a suburban audience."

Other ads will target men through radio stations such as KFAN.

The message is that the smoking ban will create a healthier, cleaner environment - and people will have more fun, Gruenberg said: "The food will taste better because the rooms will smell better."

The ads promote cleanairminneapolis.com, offering a searchable list of city bars and restaurants, plus coupons.

On March 15, the site's first day of operation, it had six printable coupons: JP Bistro (free appetizer with entree); Mission America Kitchen, (half-off bottle of wine Tuesday with dinner); Hard Rock Caf (15 percent off food); Market Barb-B-Que, (free glass of wine with entre); and two for Ichiban (including $3 off all-you-can-eat sushi.) Organizers say the list will grow.

The Fine Line is celebrating the smoking ban March 31 with a Tim Mahoney concert; some proceeds going to a to-be-named smoke-free cause.

Jennings said some bar owners are upgrading their licenses to add entertainment to get new business. He just got an application for the Refuge, which doesn't offer entertainment.

Others are taking a wait-and-see approach, he said. "A lot of owners are still in disbelief as to what is going to happen," he said.

Want to know more?

- www.cleanairminneapolis.com (restaurant coupons and other information).

- www.mpaat.org (information on various community smoking bans).