Bottoms Up

“What was that all about?” a man in a black button-down shirt hollered over the obligatory bass of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” at the Chelsea nightspot Suite 16 on a recent summer evening. His friend looked down at the glass of red liquor he’d just been handed and shrugged. They both gazed back at the dimly lit dance floor: Four long-legged, notably attractive women were working themselves into quite a fervor dancing. All four had been sitting at a reserved table, which was crammed with stacks of glasses, a pitcher of cranberry and tonic, and a bottle of Stoli Cranberry Vodka. Suddenly one of the girls, a tall brunette named Claudia, thrust a freshly mixed drink into a passerby’s hand.

“It’s my birthday,” she said. “Have a drink!”

“I don’t know,” the other man said, still watching, sipping his identical red-filled glass. “Some model party or something.”

Neither of the two men said anything about the fact that the four models, in the midst of a crowd of well-crafted “I’m bored” stares, were showing enthusiasm like they are getting paid for it. These women do their job well.

Their job is “covert sampling.” Paid anywhere from $25 to $100 an hour, the young women will flirt, dance and do all the regular things they might do anyway at a similar club, with the caveat that they are there to push a brand-in this case, Stoli’s new Cranberry Vodka-and to do so as subtly as possible. They are human advertisements, but nobody is supposed to know it.

They were hired by Strategic Marketing, a three-year-old company which employs young women like Claudia and her faux friends, Melenie, Kirstie and Robin, to appear in clubs like Suite 16, Suede, Lotus, Turtle Bay and Whiskey Blue.

Unlike the midtown beer girls, who sport corporate logos on tight T-shirts, direct marketing doesn’t go over too well in trendy spots like Suite 16, which charge expensive covers, thrive on minor celebrity, and whose doormen are infamous for being difficult to prospective patrons. Subtlety is required.

“In high-end style accounts-nightlife style accounts-it’s very difficult to get credibility for a brand going into an account,” said Tony Berger, Strategic Marketing’s 30-year-old co-founder. “Those kinds of accounts don’t let people do that-wearing T-shirts, etc. The type of consumer that is there doesn’t want that kind of interaction.” In addition to Stoli, Mr. Berger has sent women out into the night to implant images of Heineken, Wet by Beefeater and Nike into men’s beer-goggled minds.

It’s not as hard at it sounds: Most male club patrons want to believe that women like Claudia are out celebrating their 21st birthday and just eager to share free, expensive drinks, or that a beautiful model is out being cheered up by her equally gorgeous friends because her boyfriend just broke up with her.

The type of consumers that Strategic is trying to reach are what Mr. Berger calls “influencers, trendsetters and taste-makers.”

“An influencer in New York City is different than other markets: It can be a celebrity or a socialite,” said Mr. Berger. “Your trendsetter is a gym instructor whose students listen to whatever he says, go to the clubs he tells them to, buy the protein bars he tells them to.”

Typically, the company will send three to six “samplers” into a club at peak hours, usually around midnight. One of the samplers-assigned the role of market manager-meets with contacts from the club, purchases bottles of the said liquor from the bar with a company credit card and sets up shop at a table. The club makes money not only when the women buy the expensive bottles, but if patrons continue to drink the brand after the covert Strategic team has gone.

“Most of the girls are models,” said Heidi Blair, who has worked for Strategic for over a year appearing in clubs. “There’s a lot of actresses, cocktail waitresses, bartenders-or there were in the past. There were even schoolteachers.” Like many of the models, Heidi was brought into the company through a friend of hers who had already been doing the work.

Prospective samplers must be matched up to the demographics the company is looking to reach, as well as to the image the brand is interested in promoting. “Sometimes, for products, they match ethnicities,” said Ms. Blair. Casting a campaign for Wet by Beefeater, a new gin, the company looked for models who were, in the words of Mr. Berger, “provocative but not dirty,” who had “the suggestion of sex without sex” and who were, most importantly, “sophisticated and bilingual.”

One Spanish-speaking model, who has worked for the company for under six months (often on the Wet by Beefeater campaigns) and preferred to remain anonymous, felt conflicted about her experience.

“I felt bad,” she said. “I was totally lying. These are Long Island guys, generally people with money. They are guys who would normally come up and buy me a drink. Sometimes all I want is to move just an inch further away and say, ‘God, you’re disgusting.’ But I can’t, because I have to work.”

But the club experience was more enjoyable than the explicit direct marketing-wearing logo-bearing T-shirts, for example-that she had also done for the company. “With that,” she said, “it’s more like, ‘Hi, here are my tits. Here’s the logo.’ And guys think that gives them the right to be offensive.”

The women on these covert “operations” have to be careful: They don’t want the guys to discover that they’re being paid. The company maintains that while the women will be as coy as possible, they will not lie to clubgoers-assuming, of course, that they’re asked outright.

“What we’re doing is no different than when you’re walking into Best Buy, and someone’s going to come over to you and tell you, ‘This is a Sony, and it’s the greatest TV in the world,’” said Mr. Berger. “We are introducing things in a subtle, believable way.”

By all accounts, club patrons almost never confront the girls as to their motives. The only thing that might make men suspicious is the reversal of social roles. “Guys just offer girls a drink,” said Ms. Blair. “It is only cause it’s girls [offering the drinks] that it seems shocking.”

Both Mr. Berger and Ms. Blair said they saw nothing unethical or deceitful about the company’s practice. The Spanish-speaking model wasn’t so sure, but added: “I need the money, and its better than stripping, which I don’t think is unethical, either. Guys try to bullshit girls all the time-not that they’re promoting liquor, but they use liquor to promote themselves.”

-Al Sotack

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