THE MARKET Sponsors have made it to the dancefloor. So will they end up calling the tune? No, say the promoters, but the clubbers aren't convinced
it's the early hours of Sunday morning at Britain's most famous club, the Ministry of Sound. House music is pumping from vast speakers in the central bar as hundreds of people go wild. Next door in the cavernous main room, dancers are grooving to a stripped-down wall of sound, their bodies silhouetted by flashes of blue light. It looks like countless other nights in the club's four-year history.

What is new is the sight, in a small side room, of 10 clubbers, mostly men, standing transfixed before computer games consoles and oblivious to anything except the race-track on the screen before them. The machines are Sony PlayStations, installed by the company last month as part of its strategy to launch the product in Britain for the Christmas market.

In the 10 years since acid house and illegal warehouse parties revolutionised the British dance scene, clubbing has gone from an underground movement to a mass pastime enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people. As the scene has come to dominate British youth culture it has aroused the interest of advertisers looking to reach affluent 18-30s, for, in adspeak, nightclubs are frequented by the prized category of "early adopters" who quickly pick up on new products and who help form opinions in the wider marketplace. Meanwhile club promoters have become increasingly professional since their days leading convoys of ravers round the M25, and are more willing to talk business.

The result is the explosion in sponsorship that has swept clubland in the last few months. As well as Sony, the Ministry has also attracted the attentions of Absolut vodka, whose logo hangs above the new chill- out bar, and Pepsi, sponsors of the club's current nationwide tour. Other clubs and outside companies making deals include Grolsch and the promoters of Sheffield's Love To Be, Boddingtons in Manchester and the city's Hacienda club, and Haagen-Dazs and Paco Rabanne with Cheeky People in London.

Richard Brinkman of the media buyer BBJ, which advises companies where to advertise and was closely involved with the Grolsch deal, believes this is just the start, as clubs give companies access to a discerning market unmoved by conventional campaigns. "These people are so advertising- literate they see through traditional advertising," he admits.

Simon Jobling, head of marketing for PlayStation, says the tie-in with the Ministry was a small but crucial part of Sony's huge advertising campaign. "We wanted to do things that would give us credibility and build the image of the product before it was launched. We approached the Ministry because they had that credibility, and had a national reach," he said.

For this the company has paid tens of thousands - money well spent, Mr Jobling says. "We are doing an extensive press campaign, but advertising is a one-off; this is a long-term association."

Dominic Mills, editor of Campaign, describes Sony's strategy as "brilliant" for being tailored exactly to the product. "The 18-to--25s are a market which is very hard to reach through conventional media. They don't watch much television and probably don't read many papers, or if they do, that might not be the best vehicle to get to them. If you go to the clubs you don't waste any money, because you get exactly the right people. But it has to be a credible product or it's a waste of everyone's time."

Mark Rodol, managing director of the Ministry, which, with its record labels and clothing offshoot, has an annual turnover of around pounds 12m, believes sponsorship will not harm the club's reputation. Instead, he says, the link with Sony fitted in with a long-held wish to install video games at the club, and was agreed, like the Absolut tie-in, because the company already has standing.

"The PlayStation was the games system we felt was interesting enough to use; similarly Absolut is a hip, cool, brand. People who come here drink it anyway.

"With Pepsi, we chose them to get involved with the tour because they didn't want to get involved with the creative side. There won't be girls in gold bikinis handing out Pepsi samples. Also, in three years they have moved from being associated with Michael Jackson, to Madonna, to us. We felt it was key to be regarded as having similar status to such world- class superstars."

Mr Rodol is confident that notoriously fickle clubbers, quick to drop any night that the rumour mill whispers is past its sell-by date, will remain loyal to the Ministry because of its ability to attract top-flight DJs playing the coolest cutting-edge tracks. The punters themselves are less certain, with some complaining the club has become too business-oriented.

Mike, 19, a student, said: "This is the first time I've been here and I don't think I'll bother coming again, you feel it's a big business. They're selling Ministry T-shirts, it's tacky, and I don't like the computer games; I feel they're trying to make you buy one."

Hairdresser Janice, 23, agreed. "It's too commercial, I've been here before but I don't know why I came back and I doubt if I'll come again."

Aware of such sensitivity, other promoters have been wary of tying themselves to an outside brand. James Barton, a club promoter since the house scene's early days and co-founder of the highly successful Liverpool night Cream, has refused several sponsorship offers. "The products haven't been right. In the club world, credibility is everything. I personally think the tie- in with Pepsi is the worst thing the Ministry could have done; I would have said no. The Boddingtons deal with the Hacienda is logical because there's a local sense of loyalty, but Pepsi is run from the States - there's a difference.

"If someone offered us pounds 50,000 in sponsorship we would think long and hard, and would want to know what the punters thought. Would we be seen as taking the money and running or would it benefit the club? If the money was ploughed back in, the clubbers might see it as beneficial."

Andrew Grahame, director of Goodtime Promotions, which runs the stylish monthly night Cheeky People, is also wary of the wrong sort of sponsorship but believes that handled carefully, it can add to the party. "We like the idea of bringing added value to our guests, so we have done things like had Haagen-Dazs handing out free ice-cream - it's not high-profile in-your-face, but quite subtle. People didn't think, I must buy Haagen- Dazs, but, Great - free ice-cream.

"At our last night we had a Virgin Vodka Luge, where you pour vodka into a big block of ice and it wiggles its way down, until someone catches it in their mouth at the bottom. That went down well, people don't have to pay for that, and it gives them more."

Dom Phillips, editor of the dance magazine Mixmag, is not surprised at how many clubs are willing to be sponsored. He argues although promoters may have hosted their first parties for the love of music, they would not have continued if they had ended up out of pocket.

"There's always been money to be made in dance music. Sponsorship isn't a good thing, but if the clubs can do it and not compromise themselves, it's inevitable. Sponsors will only buy into clubs if they are perceived as hip and credible, but the really credible places won't be sponsored because they are underground and probably illegal."

One such night is Growth, an underground techno party at a secret location in north London that is building up a loyal following through word of mouth. Admission is by invitation only and most of the 300 participants know organisers Jason or Phil, or are friends of friends. Outside sponsors are the last thing they want.

"We don't want the club to develop in that way," says Jason. "We want to keep the atmosphere and the best music, and to keep it cheap, it's only pounds 6, but there's no guest list - even my girlfriend pays to get in. We want to keep it small and do that well rather than get big and do it badly. In smaller places people feel part of something."