This article is part of the special report: The Big Vaping Dilemma.
It took decades, but tobacco companies have figured out how to get their ads back into heavy rotation: by not selling cigarettes.
Fourteen years after an EU directive banned most cigarette advertising, tobacco companies are enjoying a marketing renaissance — and, some allege, skirting regulations — by pivoting their message to “potentially reduced harm” products like vape pens and heat-not-burn devices.
While tobacco companies argue that they need to get the word out about “safer alternatives” to conventional cigarettes, some public health advocates fear that any advertising of nicotine products could produce yet another generation of addicts.
This season, Phillip Morris International (PMI) and British American Tobacco (BAT) returned to direct branding on Formula 1 race cars for the first time in more than a decade, with harm reduction as the focus.
“Ultimately, the tobacco industry is in the business of addiction” — Jo Cranwell, tobacco industry researcher at the University of Bath
Similarly, 49 years after the U.S. Congress banned cigarette ads on television, BAT started airing a spot for an e-cigarette on American cable channels in March. “I think that shocked a lot of people in the organization, when we said were going to make a TV advert for our Vuse product there,” said Simon Cleverly, group head of corporate affairs at BAT.
BAT and PMI have advertised with POLITICO this week.
Tobacco companies say the goal is to help adults who already smoke cigarettes change to newer habits they claim are less risky to human health.
“When we went in the Formula 1 again at the beginning of this year, I think there were a lot of people in the external world that went, My god, Big Tobaccos back in Formula 1, that must be a bad thing,” said Cleverly. “It was a really important opportunity to talk about our brand.”
Liberated in many cases from the restrictions on cigarettes, the new products also show companies abandoning classic messages of machismo or sophistication in favor of 21st-century ideas like transformation, technology, precision and innovation.
Ads on race cars, television and public billboards are increasingly drawing criticism from anti-tobacco activists.
Experts disagree vehemently about whether marketing e-cigarettes actually reduces harm. Manufacturers argue they provide a safer alternative to people who would light up anyway. Critics contend that growing publicity is more likely to introduce people who never would have smoked, especially kids, to nicotine — a highly addictive chemical.
While regulators have been more open to advertising vape pens and heated tobacco devices, manufacturers are still legally barred from promoting the idea that the new technology is less harmful than regular cigarettes.
Some recent tobacco marketing has stressed a products ability to deliver on the pleasures of smoking, such as flavor. BATs spot for U.S. television starts out like a promo for green energy, with images of wind turbines and urban parks, before boasting that its Vuse Alto vape creates “what smokers really want: real draw, real taste, real satisfaction.”
The specificity of online data makes it easier to cut off messages to those who shouldnt be receiving them.
Many public health activists fear that letting Big Tobacco rebuild its reputation marks a dangerous step backward after the decades-long fight to restrict tobacco advertising. Rules in countries like France and the U.K. limit the types of branding and decoration that may appear on cigarette packs.
“Ultimately, the tobacco industry is in the business of addiction,” said Jo Cranwell, who researches the industrys marketing techniques at the University of Bath in the U.K and as a partner with the Bloomberg Philanthropies-backed industry watchdog Stopping Tobacco Organizations and Products. “At the end of the day, all theyre interested in is their business and maintaining it.”
BAT and PMI say their advertising choices follow three criteria: Campaigns should be targeted at adults and at existing smokers — and they must be legal. And theyre asking for more latitude.
“We strongly believe that more smokers would give up cigarettes if there were greater freedoms to communicate and accurately inform about better alternatives,” said PMIs vice president for strategic and scientific communications, Moira Gilchrist, in a written response
BAT and PMI are eager hirers of social media influencers to promote their smokeless products, often through outside agencies. They say social medias ability to carefully select an ad campaigns audience has made it easier to target adults.
“Companies have an extraordinary ability to say, All these people are exactly who you need, and that person isnt, and that person then gets taken off the database,” said Cleverly.
The specificity of online data makes it easier to cut off messages to those who shouldnt be receiving them, he said. “Well make sure that we know exactly who that persons followers are,” and hire just those influencers with adult fanbases.
A man exhaling smoke from an electronic cigarette in Washington, DC | Eva Hambach/AFP via Getty Images
However, some anti-smoking groups, like the U.S.-based Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and the U.K.s Action on Smoking and Health say Big Tobaccos social media efforts have at times targeted young people.
The U.K.s Advertising Standards Authority is currently investigating BAT following accusations from the groups that the company is reaching young people using “concerted, consistent and systematic approach” to online promotion of its Vype e-pen.
The groups pointed to the campaigns use of hashtags around pop culture events and stars, like #Oscars2019, #bohemianrhapsody and #LilyAllen.
Cleverly expressed confidence that the government watchdog will exonerate BAT. He said the hashtag campaigns were based on market research showing that the hashtags reached adults. Social media followers of actor Rami Malek, for example, star of the film “Bohemian Rhapsody,” were overwhelmingly adult, he said. “We dont just chuck stuff out there and cross our fingers.”
In the 1990s, cigarette brand Marlboro paid millions to splash its name across the chassis of Formula 1 race cars.
Both BAT and, more recently, PMI have come under fire for using very young models on Instagram in ads for heated tobacco products. PMI said it was suspending its “product-related influencer campaigns” globally after Reuters reported on the use of models the newswire characterized as “rail-thin young women who revel in the high life” to promote the companys IQOS device.
Reuters found breaches of PMIs internal guidelines that prohibit the use of models who are or appear to be under the age of 25.
Neither of the officials from BAT or PMI could point to instances when they spiked their own campaign because it was reaching the wrong audience, without it first being highlighted in the media.
“We have not seen any worrisome levels of unintended use either among youth or non-smokers and so have not needed to stop any of our activities,” said PMIs Gilchrist in her statement.
On the other end of the spectrum from social media targeting, tobacco companies are taking advantage of looser restrictions to promote smokeless products in public places where cigarette ads arent allowed.
With one of the highest smoking rates in Europe, Romania is a popular testing ground for alternative tobacco devices. Supporters argue thats where the population can benefit most from less harmful nicotine products. PMIs IQOS and BATs Glo products are sold from machines in bars.
A picture taken on August 21, 2018 shows people inside the research and development campus of
a tobacco manufacturing company | Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images
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