Are some of the world’s biggest tobacco companies unlawfully using social media and influencers to market their products to a new generation of smokers? According to a potentially explosive research study conducted by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, and the American Lung Association, big tobacco companies are attempting to circumvent laws that typically prevent them from marketing their products to younger consumers by leveraging social media influencers.
For those unfamiliar, influencer marketing takes the old marketing idea of using someone with influence and a huge following to endorse or promote a product or service. In today’s society, influencer marketing is tied heavily to social media where companies pay individuals with huge followings on platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter to promote or take pictures and videos of themselves with their products. Influencer marketing is a collaboration between brands, often a product or company and someone’s personal brand. To have your product photographed or included in a video with someone with a huge following is an achievement and can lead to new customers and big profit gains. For the influencer, it’s also a very lucrative business venture.
Now, anti-tobacco groups are alleging that companies like British American Tobacco, Imperial Brands, Japan Tobacco International, and Philip Morris International are using social media and influencer marketing to deceptively target and market their tobacco and vaping products to young consumers in violation of federal laws. They are petitioning the Federal Trade Commission to step in and further investigate and stop this from continuing.
The study tracked 123 different hashtags including #YouDecide, #DecideTonight, #BeMarlboro, #Refined, #Tastemakers and #FreedomMusic among many others, to promote different tobacco brands and products. It should be noted that though some of these brands are sold and available in the U.S., many of these hashtags and campaigns were promoted outside of the U.S., including countries like Chile, Italy, Poland, and Uruguay. For that reason, the study concluded that many of these hashtags have been viewed 8.8 billion times in the U.S. and 25 billion times around the world.
“The tobacco companies’ online deceptive advertising substantially penetrates the U.S. market and appears to target young American consumers,” the group writes in its report. “That means these companies are operating their online influencer marketing campaigns in direct violation of the FTC’s Endorsement Guidelines and should therefore be found by the FTC to violate Section 5 of the FTC Act.”
The New York Times reported that representatives from many of these tobacco companies asserted that they only market their products to adult smokers and that they comply with the laws of the countries where their products are sold. This is where a gray area of uncertainty is created since social media often has no boundaries, meaning a campaign launched in any country could easily have impact and influencer a consumer living in the U.S. This also brings up new legal questions such as if the tobacco companies are not directly marketing to a U.S. audience, does the FTC or any other U.S. government agency have the legal right to dictate how they can market their products in other countries via social media.
Social media is an important marketing resource for many tobacco companies. While the study and petition targets mostly “big tobacco”, it should be noted that other tobacco categories including premium cigars, pipe tobacco, hookah and vape all have some presence on various social media channels. Many companies in these categories use hashtags, some that are directly tied to their brands and others that are subtle, and many rely on some form of influencer marketing to help build brand awareness for their products. Social media has been an unclear area of the Deeming Rules with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration loosely making rules for how companies can advertise and promote regulated tobacco and vapor products on social media but there’s yet to be a definitive rule or guidance beyond the restriction of marketing and advertising on social media to youth and minors.
The group advises that the FTC require tobacco companies to disclose on social media that their pictures, videos and hashtags are paid advertisements and endorsements by including the hashtags #Sponsored, #Promotion or #Ad in the caption or within the videos and photos.
You can read the full report and petition from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids by clicking here.