- Tobacco companies secretly partnered with social media influencers to post images of cigarettes and smoking as part of their marketing strategies across 40 countries, according to findings of a two-year investigation by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and customer research and consulting firm Netnografica. The findings were revealed in a press release and in a New York Times article.
- The investigation found more than 100 social media campaigns by tobacco giants Philip Morris, which owns brands like Marlboro, and others. Interviews were conducted with influencers, who were granted anonymity for the research. The influencers were paid to promote cigarettes to their followers without disclosing that they were endorsing the products. The campaigns were viewed more than 25 billion times worldwide, including 8.8 billion times in the U.S.
- Several public health and medial organizations detailed the findings in a petition to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which regulates influencer marketing and requires influencers to disclose relationships to advertisers when promoting products on social media. None of the images uncovered in the investigation contained disclosures. The petition asks the FTC to order tobacco companies to disclose that their social media campaigns are paid by using the hashtags #Sponsored, #Promotion or #Ad.
Tobacco companies claim that they don't target young people with advertising and the U.S. has rules dating back to the 1970s about marketing tobacco to young people, including bans on TV and radio cigarette ads. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids investigation offers a compelling case that cigarette-makers have found a new way to market to younger generations using influencer campaigns, which — because influencer marketing is still relatively nascent and unregulated — can sometimes fly under the radar. These campaigns can still reach large numbers of consumers given the popularity of social media and younger consumers' fondness for social influencers.
The influencer campaigns reviewed in the investigation involved young people who had large social media followings and were paid to post photos featuring cigarette brands. The influencers were trained on what brands to promote, when to post pictures for the highest engagement, which hashtags to use to promote cigarettes and how to take natural-looking photos that didn't resemble marketing, according to the investigation. For example, influencers in Italy paid to promote Lucky Strike were told to keep the health warnings on the cigarette packs out of the photos. Tobacco companies also organized parties and contests and encouraged participants to share the content on social media.
Younger consumers, including millennials and Gen Zers, are often drawn to influencers, finding them more authentic, engaging and trustworthy than celebrity endorsements and other forms of advertising. Seventy-four percent of marketers plan to use influencers to target new and existing audiences over the next year, according to the World Federation of Advertisers. Not including labels disclosing that the campaigns were paid could have made the posts more appealing to consumers.
If the report is accurate, the FTC may have a strong case against the tobacco companies. The agency has been cracking down on influencers for nondisclosure and is likely to pay attention to a major investigation suggesting tobacco companies have been taking advantage of a relatively immature marketing space.
The tobacco industry has previously played fast and loose with advertising standards. In November, tobacco companies began airing anti-smoking "corrective statements" that detail health risks on primetime TV and in full-page print newspaper ads. The messages were mandated by a 2006 court ruling, but critics said the companies were running the ads on platforms where young people weren't as likely to see them given their growing preference for digital, mobile and social channels.
Smoking in the U.S. reached an all-time low last year, with 14% adults saying they are smokers, according to USA Today, which cited government data. The number of high school students who smoke also dropped to a new low at 9%, but about 13% use e-cigarettes or other vaping products.