Since the summer of 2019, the media have reported about British American Tobacco’s marketing campaign for its Glo tobacco heating product, involving paid postings by young influencers on Instagram. The Investigative Desk delved deeper and found that the campaign also paid a Dutch-Italian and seven other European influencers.
By Nina Eshuis
Scene one. Two persons in their twenties stroll around the sunny city centre of Split, Croatia. He has long, curly hair and wears his shirt with the first buttons opened. She wears white lingerie and a fashionable hat. A relaxed, electronic beat serves as background music.
Scene two. The two are on a boat, partying. The sky is blue, just like the sea. The woman elegantly holds a hand fan. The man points provocatively at the camera. Still the same beat on the background. The caption that accompanies the Instagram post: #TodayIWill.
This could be an ad for a festival, or a clothing brand. Nothing in the video indicates that this is an advertisement for a tobacco product. But it is. It is an ad for glo, a tobacco heating product (THP) by British American Tobacco, which sells brands like Lucky Strike, Pall Mall and Dunhill.
© Instagram, @glo_worldwide (viewed on April 15, 2020)
Big Tobacco has discovered social media to advertise their products on. This is not allowed, according to European directives and the WHO framework convention on tobacco control. But how to enforce these advertising bans on the world wide web?
Last summer BAT brought together a group of eight influencers. The Instagrammers were invited to attend the Defected Croatia festival, where the tobacco company sponsored a boat party. The Romanian, Russian, Ukrainian, Italian and Dutch influencers together have millions of followers.
The influencers posted numerous pictures and videos on their Instagram accounts. Glo’s Instagram account also depicted the influencers: on the beach, on a boat or strolling through the city. These were nice pictures and video’s, with high production quality. Every time the caption reads #TodayIWill, the campaign slogan for glo.
© Instagram, @giarogiarratana (viewed on April 15, 2020)
The festival in Croatia was not the only element of the #TodayIWill -campaign. BAT also organised giveaways on their Instagram for parties on Ibiza. The festival and the parties were hosted by Defected Records, a British record label for house music. Together with McLaren, BAT organised giveaways for Formula 1 races and even a ‘VIP racing experience’ in Abu Dhabi. To win, people had to follow the glo Instagram-account and like the post.
BAT cooperated with McLaren not just to promote the glo but every ‘potentially reduced risk product’ the company launched, including e-cigarettes Vuse and Vype.
The British giant is not the only tobacco company marketing its products on social media. Research from 2018 by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids shows that Philip Morris International, Japan Tobacco International and Imperial Brands have done the same. Robert Kozinets, professor and social media researcher at the University of Southern California, guided the research team of eleven researchers in ten countries. Together, they found over a dozen social media campaigns for tobacco and e-cigarette products.
Remarkable about the glo campaign is that the product itself is barely visible on Instagram. What is being shown are partying youngsters. The slogan #TodayIWill is accompanied with phrases like ’embrace the unexpected’, ‘be bold’ or ‘follow my own path’.
Many of these campaigns are about promoting a certain lifestyle, explains Robert Kozinets. His research team found comparable hashtags, such as ‘I am on the move’, ‘decide your flow’ and ‘my day now’. ‘For these campaigns, one of the key messages is about living in the moment, being impulsive and taking advantage of the present.’ To make sure that influencers use the hashtags, some tobacco companies create parties, events to which they invite the influencers. ‘For these campaigns, the parties were really about getting those hashtags out there, and about groups of young people having fun. It is really subtle.’
Lifestyle advertising is a marketing technique that tobacco companies have been using for ages, according to Kozinets. He refers to Marlboro Man, the character that appeared in Marlboro advertisements since the 1950s. Kozinets: ‘He too created an image of someone who escapes normal life, lives on the edge, escapes daily reality with a smoke.’
The European Tobacco Advertising Directive, which member states are obliged to implement, bans cross-border advertising of tobacco products in printed media, on radio and television, and on the Internet, as well as cross-border sponsorship of events. But enforcement is a grey area, said Anca Toma Friedlaender, director at Smoke Free Partnership. ‘The Internet and especially social media create most of the enforcement uncertainties.’
In a report from 2008 on the implementation of the directive, the European Commission wrote that cross-border advertisement on the Internet will be ‘the biggest challenge for effective implementation of the EU advertising ban.’ The Commission also wrote that it would ‘explore the possibility’ of a cross-border enforcement mechanism. However, more than ten years later, a mechanism that coordinates enforcement between the member states is still non-existent.
Instagram also has its own responsibility in enforcing the tobacco advertising directive, according to Sybe de Vries, professor of EU Single Market Law & Fundamental Rights at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. ‘The ads become visible for the consumer on Instagram, so the platform could be a starting point.’
Instagram is part of Facebook, which has a subsidiary in Ireland. The ‘country-of-origin-principle’ that is central to the European directives on e-commerce implies that the member state in which the social platform is established, is responsible for their enforcement. ‘You could take Instagram to court in Ireland,’ De Vries explained. The European Commission could also start an infringement procedure against countries which fail to implement the European law.
Another opening for better enforcement could be the recent ruling of the European Court of Justice, which said that Facebook could be forced to delete hate speech about an Austrian politician, worldwide, because they violated Austrian law. The ruling could serve as a precedent to force Instagram to ban tobacco marketing from the platform. ‘But enforcement would still be difficult,’ professor De Vries admitted.
Last December, Facebook and Instagram announced that they would no longer allow branded content concerning vaping and tobacco products and would begin enforcement in the ‘coming weeks’.
The glo Instagram account and the posts of the #TodayIWill-campaign were still online in late March. The giveaways and posts by influencers have been effective. Statistics from Keyhole, a social media analysing tool, show that the hashtag #TodayIWill has been viewed more than 28 million times, by more than 8 million Instagram users.
Professor Robert Kozinets questions whether the social media platforms will succeed in keeping their promise. He and his researchers found many social media posts in which influencers did not explicitly state that they were being paid for the post. ‘That’s why social media are very attractive for advertising and very difficult for regulators to regulate.’ How can you determine whether a post is an advertisement? Especially since there are so many accounts. Kozinets: ‘That requires a huge effort.’
Some EU directives overlook the Internet. ‘They originate from a time before the Internet took its big leap,’ said Sybe de Vries, professor of EU Single Market Law at Utrecht University. Some of the enforcement problems would require updating the directives.
The EU directive on tobacco marketing is largely based on the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which has been ratified by 181 countries. In this convention too the guidelines do not sufficiently cover social media marketing, the WHO itself concluded in 2018. Its implementation guidelines on tobacco advertising date back to 2008, before the big rise of cross-border social media.
During the next worldwide convention of the WHO, which is scheduled to take place in November 2020 in the Netherlands, an expert group will present new guidelines for cross-border marketing of tobacco products.
WHO’s FCTC is legally binding, but the organisation does not impose sanctions. Parties can take countries to court based on the convention, the same applies for the European directives.
For the Dutch article, please visit Argos.
Dutch radio broadcaster NPO Radio 1 made a video based on our investigations:
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Wist jij dat er tabaksfabrikanten zijn die reclame maken op Instagram? En dat jij zo’n post misschien wel geliket hebt? Onderzoek van Argos (@omroepvpro & @omroephuman) en The Investigate Desk onthult de slimme marketingtrucs van tabaksfabrikanten. . . . . . #tabak #roken #nporadio1 #sigaret #sigaretten #reclame