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How the tobacco industry targets young people with social media influencers

Shady campaigns across Instagram and other platforms are trying to make smoking aspirational to millennials worldwide

At first glance, it looks like any other piece of borderline branded social media ephemera: two young women influencers in an unspecified club setting, throwing up peace signs. There’s a kind of reassuringly soft focus, slightly grungy vibe to the pic, with the woman on the right clasping a bottle of Heineken and a lit cigarette. 

The comments are in Portuguese, as is the caption, though the hashtags are in English. “Do you smoke?” runs one of the responses to the image. This, like thousands of other similar images, is a piece of illegal, covert, and paid-for advertising by one of the world’s largest tobacco companies.

The range and depth of these practices came to light last autumn, when the Campaign For Tobacco Free Kids and a US-based consumer research firm, Netnografica LLC, published the results of a two-year investigation into how the likes of Phillip Morris, British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco, and Imperial Brands have secretly infiltrated the world of ‘influencer marketing’. 

The figures make for alarming reading. Thousands of individual influencers have been operating over a dizzying range of countries, from Argentina to South Korea, Romania, and the UK, with campaigns codenamed ‘Night Hunters’, or the almost comically pathetic ‘Like Us’. As global tobacco use has declined and advertising laws have toughened, it has become harder for the tobacco behemoths to entice a new generation of captive smokers, though through no lack of creativity and effort.

It’s difficult work, trying to make contact with the influencers involved in the original campaigns. Much has been deleted since the scandal came to light, with previously revealing hashtags stripped of content, and other avenues expunged. The vast troves of data collected by the American non-profit Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids shows proof of the tobacco companies’ methods, but little trace of the individual online presences signed up to carry out their whims.

And for good reason, as Caroline Renzulli – from the organisation’s international communications team – tells Dazed. Their research offered total anonymity to the participants, in exchange for the interviews conducted. After all, these influencers have a livelihood to protect too. In a world where perceived trust and authenticity are paramount, it’s not surprising to find few names willing to reveal their individual roles. Just as it doesn’t seem too fanciful to gauge from the snippets that remain, that most of the targeted influencers were little more than adolescents themselves. 

Tracing the thread of the tobacco companies’ covert work was a painstaking process. It started with finding patterns and working outwards. As time went on, it slowly became apparent that tobacco companies were infiltrating online platforms, when links emerged between social media posts and traditional marketing images and slogans used to sell Marlboro or Lucky Strike. The focus was nothing less than international, with a billboard in Indonesia one of the first key examples cited by Renzulli. 

Social media detective work started to reveal a few consistent themes. Whenever Marlboro branding appeared in the frames of otherwise innocuous pictures, the hashtag #IDecideTo would too, slotted in at the bottom of the post. Similarly, any picture prominently featuring Lucky Strike would be equipped with #LikeUs_Party. They also appeared to be region-specific, with the most common hashtags in, for example, Brazil –  #AheadBR, #Quemtepira, #TasteTheCity and #Readytoroll – used by British American Tobacco to advertise Kent, Dunhill, and Lucky Strike. 

It was hard not to be taken aback by the sheer scale of what they found. “This content was almost everywhere we looked from Facebook to Instagram to Twitter”, Renzulli says. “And what we came to realise, after interviewing dozens of influencers around the world, is that these images were all part of a sophisticated global marketing strategy from an industry that is desperate to attract new smokers.”

Leaked documents show how the young people employed by tentacles of British American Tobacco, Philip Morris, and their ilk weren’t offered mere ‘guidance’ in what to post. They were given clear-cut, unambiguous manuals in covert promotion. What products to highlight, when to post for maximum reach, and how to take ‘authentic’ photos designed not to arouse suspicion, or appear as obviously clunky, staged adverts. 

“The successful influencer is selling a set of dreams tethered to a recognisable and consistent brand... do surreptitiously placed 20-decks of Lucky Strike suggest the requisite wholesomeness, or clearly refined sense of aspiration?”

One of the documents Dazed has seen outlines a presentation offering a ‘guide to influencers’, from British American Tobacco. It has been translated from the original Italian and shows a variety of tips and commands for skirting or subverting advertising laws in the country. “Have at least two shares a week with #likeus_party… these are the minimum activities required… try to always cover up the images that are required to be on the packages by law”. 

As one anonymous influencer told interviewers: “It was forbidden to exhibit in the pictures other brands other than the ones they were advertising. It happened that someone uploaded a picture where you can see a cigarette box from another brand and they make her/him delete it.”

The influencer realm is a difficult ethical universe to navigate at the best of times, let alone at its most shadowy. Dazed reached out to Emilie Tabor, CEO of IMA, a leader in the world of ‘digital influencer marketing’ with headquarters in Amsterdam, for some clarification from someone at the business end of proceedings.

IMA’s work revolves around linking worldwide brands to appropriate online figures, with the aim of creating collaborative advertising strategies. Tabor is crystal clear: tobacco is a complete non-starter, for several interlocking reasons.

“We work with a multitude of brands across more verticals than you can think of, yet it’s always been important to us to listen to our internal compass. Morally we feel we have a duty to be fair to audiences, and ultimately IMA and the partners we work with are respectful of this, which is why tobacco is one that has always been a no-go,” she writes to me over email.

Tabor cites the obvious ethical quandary that tobacco advertising presents, as well as the black and white regulatory issues. Though the first is important, the second makes any such requests – even the purely hypothetical – completely redundant. “(Tobacco advertising) is now banned in several markets (including) the US. Most companies are compliant with local advertising laws – which extends to influencer marketing – so we don’t typically come across requests from tobacco brands. However, when we do, we’re always clear that it’s something we will not work on”.

There’s another consideration at work, too. Influencer marketing may be a recent and still half-understood phenomenon, but its fundamental power doesn’t differ too wildly from the underpinnings of traditional advertising. Questions of morality are all well and good, but there is always a bottom line, lurking solid as concrete.

The successful influencer is selling a set of dreams tethered to a recognisable and consistent brand, typically to a ‘millenial’ or Gen-Z audience. Do surreptitiously placed 20-decks of Lucky Strike suggest the requisite wholesomeness, or clearly refined sense of aspiration?   

Tabor suggests not. After all, their work requires thinking what’s best for their clients – and the stolidly 20th century allure of tobacco doesn’t cut muster, quite aside from the ethics at play.

“We really think about what our influencers would work on – is this something that they would already authentically talk to their audiences about already? If it’s not genuine and from the heart, we know it won’t work, which is also why we wouldn’t ask our community to work on it,” she writes. 

However easy it might be to dismiss some of the surviving (if heavily redacted) posts, depicting sanitised Eurodance parties and coffee breaks in unfathomably twee bucolic surroundings, as cornily transparent – at least when lifted up to the cynical adult eye – the depth of their reach seems indisputable. 

After all, the ghouls of the transnational tobacco world are hardly rank amateurs when it comes to inventively hawking their wares. The Marlboro Man might have – both literally and figuratively – died a death, though his funeral hasn’t been a signal for conclusive defeat. They have the funds and the savvy to spread themselves widely, without being reduced to thinness, even if the methods employed might be flatly illegal at worst and dubious at best, with portions of the developing world particularly fruitful ground, where frameworks are typically looser and there are greater legal grey areas to exploit and burrow in between.  

Though it’s not just the legal statuses of individual nations that are the issue, Renzulli says. “Everything about these social media campaigns for tobacco have been designed to reach the widest possible global audience. We looked at just 123 hashtags associated with tobacco industry marketing campaigns and combined. Those hashtags have been viewed more than 25 billion times around the world.” 

It’s not difficult to understand the rationale underpinning the strategy, however morally vacant. To entice a new generation of smokers across the world, it needs to retain something approaching the age old elixir of advertising success: cool. And what is the quickest route to cache with an emerging generation of global adolescents, for whom the vagaries of traditional ‘old media’ advertising can appear as relevant as steam power?

“We looked at just 123 hashtags associated with tobacco industry marketing campaigns and combined. Those hashtags have been viewed more than 25 billion times around the world” 

Our understanding of ‘influencer culture’ and its effects might be as nascent as the concept itself, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t understand the dangers of a 14-year-old scrolling through their Instagram feed, only to find a “trendy fashion blogger holding a pack of Marlboro cigarettes,” in Renzulli’s words. 

As the reams of evidence uncovered in the past several months has confirmed, this isn’t a piecemeal dipping of the toe in murkily ambiguous waters, by a few renegade junior advertising executives. This is a continent spanning, industry-wide strategy to undermine decades of efforts to reduce tobacco use, by targeting what are little more than children, using almost outrageously cynical and underhanded tactics. 

What comes next isn't easy to predict, though September witnessed reports that British American Tobacco are facing a legal complaint for aggressive use of social media marketing in Brazil. August had already witnessed a cluster of eminent public health groups in the US calling on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate the deceptive advertising practices of several of the biggest tobacco companies, including Phillip Morris and British American Tobacco. 

It remains to be seen what these challenges amount to. Whatever happens, it seems naive to expect the tobacco industry giants to retreat without a fight. They’ve far too much invested for that.