Consumer society, as we know it today, emerged in the blue haze of cigarette smoke swirling under gaslights. Cigarettes were one of the first truly global mass-produced commodities. In the process of becoming such an iconic commodity that defined not only the late nineteenth century but one that continues to cast its long, long shadow on the twenty first century, the cigarette industry invented and fine-tuned many of the features that have become characteristic features of consumer societies today. Advertising was of course the glossy, new oven in which cigarette companies baked their new vision of a society of consumers. Branding was particularly prominent and was established gradually using a farrago of new marketing techniques ranging from celebrity endorsements to novel promotional offers.
Cigarettes had become popular in Europe after the Crimean War, after British army officers picked up smoking from Turkish officers. The new habit spread quickly and new companies began to cater to it in Europe and America. In British India too local entrepreneurs like Haji Bukhsh Ellahie began to serve the emerging market. By the end of the nineteenth century the success of these small, local companies had turned the novel habit into a raging fashion. As demand grew, local companies merged, competed and gradually consolidated into massive global giants. These giant producers in turn sought ever bigger markets and thus devised newer techniques to grow the market.
In 1890 several local American producers merged under the leadership of JB Duke to form the American Tobacco Company [ATC]. By 1901 the pressure from ATC forced several local British producers to create a defensive combine called Imperial Tobacco Company[ITC]. The following year, in 1902, Duke engineered an agreement between ATC and ITC to effectively divide the world between them by setting up a subsidiary called British American Tobacco [BAT] that would trade throughout the world and make sure that the various brands in their stable did not compete against each other. This arrangeme
nt would continue until 1911 when American anti-trust legislation would force ATC to break-up due to its complete monopolization of the tobacco market. The global organization of the tobacco trade, however, would continue as BAT would eventually buy out ATC’s share in it after the 1911 restructuring.
One of the first initiatives undertaken by BAT under Duke’s leadership after 1902 was an effort to grow the market in British India. Duke sent a trusted lieutenant called James A. Thomas to Calcutta to grow and dominate the market. Thomas immediately introduced an innovative promotional scheme to boost sales of his brands. He purchased thirty, American-made, hand-operated sewing machines at $ 12.50 a piece and devised a “present” scheme to give them away. Under the scheme all the BAT brands would include “‘present’ tickets” within them If one could collect a fixed number of these tickets, usually in the thousands, they could then come to the company’s offices on Radha Bazar Street and redeem their sewing machines.
The scheme was such a massive success that it continued well into the 1930s, long after Thomas had departed and BAT itself had been broken up. What is more, the scheme’s popularity was so immense that the basic design of the “‘present’ tickets” remained almost entirely unchanged from their first introduction in the 1900s to the late 1930s. What changed were the addresses, actual gifts, the number of tickets needed and the frequency with which redemption dates were fixed.
Interestingly, from its very inception these new techniques designed to foster smoking in general and brand loyalty in particular, also ended up nurturing new forms of criminal activities. The same unending greed for profits that drove Duke and his minions across the face of Asia devising novel marketing strategies, also stoked the imagination and innovation of a range of local businessmen. Thomas himself told the tale of how for the first two months of scheme only two of his sewing machines had been claimed. Then, allegedly on one fine morning, “five grave East Indians” appeared with “bag after bag” of “‘present’ tickets” and cleaned out his stock. He had to immediately order a new consignment of 150 sewing machines.
Though Thomas did not say it explicitly, he clearly suspected some criminal activity. He simply said he had never been able to “solve the mystery”. Proof of such innovative frauds would emerge gradually and repeatedly after that. In July 1908, for instance, one Nripendra Chander Ghose was arrested for having attempted to “change the numbers” (most likely the dates by which tickets had to be redeemed) on the tickets to obtain of the promised gifts. The forgery was detected when he showed up at the Radha Bazar Lane office to claim his prize. In January 1914 a traveling salesman employed by ITC uncovered an even more innovative fraud in Pune. He found that a local merchant, Agoomall Sagarmall, had imported packs of Scissors cigarettes that were only meant for sale in Aden, and not in India, and then inserted two forged coupons into each packet. Not only did the whole structure of global domination evolved by the tobacco industry in 1902 depend upon a strict demarcation of what brands were sold where, but the prize schemes were also tailored to particular regions. Sagarmall had effectively undermined the whole global blueprint, possibly by relying on long-term networks of small-scale trading around the edges of the Arabian Sea. The following year, in November 1915, another man named Lalta Prasad Baniya, was arrested in Calcutta as he handed in 2100 tickets to claim a wrist watch. It turned out that the tickets had all been stolen from the ITC’s factory and warehouse in Munger. An employee of the warehouse named Nogen Lall was identified as the man responsible for the theft. Baniya had knowingly bought the stolen tickets from Lall to obtain the watch.
Though reports of such cases in newspapers begun to diminish by the 1920s and 1930s, that likely did not mean an actual decline in cases of such frauds. Rather, it might merely signal that such cases had become less newsworthy as they became more commonplace. The proliferation of cheaper and more accessible, usually Japanese-made, consumer goods in the inter-war decades might also have made gifts like sewing machines and wrist watches less worth risking an elaborate scam.
Either way, what remains remarkable about these “‘present’ tickets” were both their success over nearly four decades as well as the speed and innovativeness with which local entrepreneurs sought to partake of the profits being reaped by British and American firms from Asian cigarette consumption. In their own ways, both these trends continue to be with us and shape the form of consumer society in which we live today. What is ironic, both now and then, is that all this grubby greediness played out under the pretext of exchange of ‘presents’ and ‘gifts’.