Imagine scrolling through TikTok and stopping at a video that features an attractive young woman. She smiles and places a flavored nicotine pouch in her mouth. A popular song from her country plays in the background.
Thousands of miles away, another social media influencer features the same product in their video. Only, they are dancing and lip-synching to a song that is popular in their nation.
Why are the same products from the same company appearing in so many videos on social media? As the popularity of smoking cigarettes wanes, major tobacco companies are investing in other products. Their goal is to continue to encourage the consumption of nicotine through different products. To be successful, they need younger consumers to become nicotine users.
To that end, British American Tobacco (BAT) has engaged in a £1bn influencer marketing campaign. They are using people and elements that appeal to younger consumers, including pop stars, influencers, and events attended by younger audiences.
Now, investigative journalists from several outlets have learned that these campaign efforts are having concerning consequences. BAT has reached young adults, people who have never smoked before, and children with their marketing efforts.
The attention from the press has become so problematic that PR professionals associated with BAT have attempted to bribe journalists investigating the issue. In one documented case, BAT did fire the agency in question.
Still, BAT is defending its marketing practices. The company hopes that it will be able to benefit from new streams of revenue created from the sales of e-cigarettes, vapes, and nicotine pouches. Their goal is to replace income lost as people stop smoking traditional tobacco products and fewer consumers begin smoking. The company uses the slogan “A Better Tomorrow” to advertise its products as less harmful than other nicotine alternatives.
BAT projects that they will get the attention of 500 million customers who are interested in nicotine products, and they have 100 billion per year to spend.
According to results released earlier this year, the sale of non-combustible nicotine products exceeded eight billion dollars before taxes. Further, the number of consumers using smoke-free nicotine products has increased dramatically. This is mainly due to the pandemic. Many people used lockdown to switch from smoking products to nicotine delivery products advertised as being healthier for the lungs.
Unfortunately, these are not risk-free products. As a result, there is widespread concern about using social media and the power of influencers to help these promotions just go viral.
BAT is using TikTok videos with young influencers to promote their nicotine patches sold under the brand names Lyft and Velo. Their efforts appear to be quite successful.
The company is even using vocabulary that appeals to young people, making it clear that they are marketing to that demographic. One TikTok video promoting Lyft says, “Every basic bitch in Sweden between the age of 14 and 23.” When you add in the modern package design, these are products marketed to younger hipper consumers, especially when compared to traditional “Snus” tobacco pouches.
It’s easy to see these efforts are successful. When you combine attractive, young, relatable influencers with any product, young people are sure to make it just go viral. The paid partnerships with TikTok and Instagram influencers add undeniable social appeal.
While Lyft doesn’t contain tobacco, it does have nicotine. Because of this, it’s a regulated product for people over the age of 18. Still, many TikTok videos show people who appear to be much younger than 18 using the product. These videos are getting millions of views.
Presenting Conflicting Information
When BAT speaks to regulators in the United States and Europe, they tend to focus on the perceived health benefits of their products. They claim their nicotine products are for adult smokers who want to replace traditional cigarettes with a healthier alternative.
On the other hand, when they present information to investors, they focus on growing the pool of nicotine consumers they can serve. Of course, this requires bringing on new customers, not simply converting them from one nicotine delivery system to another.
BAT refers to nicotine products as next-generation products (NGP). According to them, they have added millions of new users since 2017. It’s obvious they are working hard to add new consumers, not just those who want to cease smoking.
Using Influencers on a Global Scale
BAT is aggressively marketing their products in many countries. They are also using influencers to connect with new, often younger audiences in hopes of making these nicotine products appear trendy. Their influencer campaign in Pakistan used both Instagram and Facebook and recruited 40 influencers. In Spain, they promoted a heated tobacco product (commonly known as an e-cigarette) called Glo. This campaign has been fronted by the popular boy band Dvicio on social media as well as in live events. While the members of the band are all of age, their target audiences include tweens or adolescents. They have even been featured in Tween magazines in Spain. Further, brand ambassadors have handed out samples of these products in shopping malls and at parties. Young people have reported receiving samples without being subjected to ID verification.
Despite encouraging new users to consume their products, BAT has stated that their products are intended for adults, and they oppose underaged young people using nicotine in any form. The cigarette manufacturing company further claims that their marketing is only directed at adults and not intended to appeal to youth. They also mention that they age-check visitors who attempt to engage with BAT on social media. BAT says that marketing these products is necessary to make smokers aware of these options.
The Backlash from Anti-Smoking and Consumer Advocates
Anti-smoking and consumer advocates aren’t buying the company’s claims. They believe that the company is marketing savvy enough to know exactly what they are doing when they place promotional videos on platforms dominated by young consumers. The same is true when they leverage influencers who primarily attract underage audiences.
Tobacco promotion is a bit of a gray area for brands. While many organizations, such as the auto racing brand Formula One, refuse to allow tobacco advertising, they will allow the advertisement of smoke-free nicotine products. That being the case, many of these anti-tobacco brands (including F1) have turned around and partnered with BAT to promote nicotine products. This means that ads appear on driver’s cars and uniforms. These promotions also include working with Mclaren on Formula 1 e-sports shown on YouTube.
To be fair, viewers have to indicate that they are over 18 to view these events. However, many viewers also revealed that they had misrepresented their ages to gain access.
Further, Facebook and Instagram both prohibit branded content promoting the sale or use of nicotine products. However, like TikTok, they have not been able to fully prevent major tobacco companies from using influencers to promote their products.
A Powerful and Well-Funded Marketing Niche
Even critics must acknowledge that tobacco companies have a long history of effectively marketing their products to consumers, even in the face of regulation and social pressure. That hasn’t changed with the growth of influencer marketing. Instead, companies like BAT have managed to create campaigns that have either stayed just on the right side of rules and regulations or have simply flown under the radar. Despite pleas from health and consumer groups, not much is being done to counter these campaigns.
The Responsibilities of Brands and Influencers
Likewise, brands are encouraged to fully disclose the nature of their products or services to influencers and work within the rules of each social media platform when they design influencer campaigns. This ethical behavior is likely to ensure that brands stay on the right side of regulations and avoid the wrath of consumer advocates.
Both brands and influencers should diligently research their obligations and ensure they fully understand the rules and implications that apply. Do also keep in mind that you are likely to be held solely responsible for social media posts affiliated with your account. Use good judgment to ensure your long-term influencer marketing success.