Big Tobacco is increasingly using social media to find new ways to make young people smoke, and circumvents decades of laws limiting the marketing of traditional cigarettes to minors.
In major cities around the world, such as Rio de Janeiro, Cairo, Jakarta and Milan, tobacco companies have held extravagant events called "K_Player" and "RedMoveNow" to connect with young people. These events, often packed with alcohol, live music and attractive hosts, do not cut costs as they look for new buyers for their tobacco products.
The problem? These party-goers are carefully focused on young influencers who are encouraged to share photos of their glamorous, tobacco-sponsored adventure with friends and followers on social media using engaging hashtags like #iamonthemove, #decideyourflow and #mydaynow. And although the influencers are over 1
This use of the organic reach of social media is one of the findings of a global research project that I've been working on with more than a dozen different scholars since 2016. Tobacco-Free Kids, the anti-smoking advocacy group, noticed many photos of young people who came up with cigarettes in their online scans of global social media and asked me to investigate.
My own research focuses on how to rigorously research online culture using natural observation techniques, something that this study definitely requires. My team's job was to monitor, report, and analyze the programs behind the hashtag-tagged social media contributions of youth smokers. What we learned about the current advertising of the tobacco company surprised us.
Limitations on Skirting Marketing
Tobacco companies have always had a talent for finding creative ways to circumvent regulations designed to restrict marketing for young people.
In 1971, the US Congress banned tobacco advertising on television and radio. In response, companies invested heavily in outdoor advertising and magazines. In 1997, the Tobacco Master Settlement Treaty banned tobacco for outdoor and billboard advertising. In response, the tobacco money flowed into sponsors of sports, music and other events. This type of event sponsorship was banned with some exceptions. In 2010, however, further restrictions on youth marketing were introduced.
Regardless of the medium, messaging was often the same: finding new and young people potential smokers. As evidenced by the documents in the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, tobacco managers have long believed that the continued existence and success of their businesses depends on one thing: persuading young people to buy their products.
The World Health Organization banned tobacco advertising in 168 contracting states in 2005. By 2010, the US had closed many of Big Tobacco's favorite advertisements and tobacco loopholes.
What was Big Tobacco when conventional media are mostly banned? Like the Marlboro Man, the unregulated Wild West rescued the social media for salvation.
The Perfect Marketing Media
Social Media closely matches Big Tobacco's advertising requirements. At least 88 percent of American adolescents say they regularly use social media apps like Facebook and Instagram, and the technology is known to be difficult to regulate.
With the financial support of Tobacco-Free Kids, I assembled a growing research team to investigate. Our work continues.
My team collected a wealth of social media data and conducted interviews with a number of tobacco brand ambassadors, party visitors, influencers, and industry insiders from around the world. We found a surprisingly effective use of social media by various tobacco companies to connect with the next generation of potential cigarette smokers.
While the tobacco companies carefully followed the letter of the law – the influencers involved in this post were all of age in their countries – social media have a public environment that makes it an effective and largely unregulated form of broadcasting.
Legally, anyone 13 years or older can have an Instagram or Facebook account. Our "net art" – a kind of qualitative social media investigation that focuses on cultural contexts, social structures, and deeper meanings – only looked at public posts, images that every 13-year-old could see with a report.
Training Camps and Pop-Up Parties
Our research uncovered a series of publicity campaigns and a network of PR and advertising agencies who cleverly used the power of social media to keep tobacco advertising under the radar of existing regulation ,
We found tobacco companies in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines that recruited "nano-influencers" from just 2,000 to 3,000 followers on Facebook and Instagram, and invited them to talk about their tobacco-sponsored adventures.
In Indonesia, we found training camps for brand ambassadors that lasted two full weeks and were run by the domestic tobacco company Gudang Garam. In these camps, young nano-influencers received generous fees, taught images about cigarette brands, and then taught them how to better maintain their social media feeds in a way that best underlines their brands, with tips on lighting, hashtags, and the best time to publish them for maximum impact.
Some companies used Facebook pages to attract young people to their parties. For example, after answering a few questions on the Facebook page, responders were added to a mailing list, inviting people to cool pop-up parties and cool events.
At these parties, young people were greeted by attractive attendees offering cigarettes to them and encouraging them to design floor constructions based on the cigarette brand logos. After taking pictures, they were encouraged to post them on their social media feeds, using the party's determination and action-oriented hashtags. The result was undoubtedly a new form of cigarette advertising.
These activities clearly violate the spirit of existing agreements not to make indirect advertising for young people. You can call it stealth, undercover, or guerrilla marketing if you wish. Whatever the name is, this is 21st century cigarette advertising reaching millions of teenagers around the world.
Using Social Media
Our research has not only helped shed light on Big Tabacco's uncontrolled use of social media, she also recently briefed a petition to the US Federal Trade Commission calling for these novel forms of cigarette advertising investigate and enforce.
While it may be difficult for governments to keep up to date on the media in these rapidly changing times, they must do so if they want to increase the worldwide smoking rate and the resulting health problems. With the change of leadership in the Food and Drug Administration, new and stricter tobacco and steaming regulations in the United States have already been called into question.
Social media offer incredible advances in communication that democratize communications in unprecedented ways. However, this openness is easy to use for marketers with questionable motives.
Robert Kozinets is the Hufschmid Chair of Strategic Public Relations at the University of Southern California at the Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism.
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