30 December 2007

Pushing tobacco on the web: is YouTube telling or selling you something?

"Lung cancer becomes a STD. Nice."

A fascinating study by Australian researchers [4] investigates the prevalence of smoking-related videos on YouTube. One of the study's authors and a global authority on tobacco marketing, Professor Simon Chapman of the School of Public Health at Sydney University [2,3,4,5], has been quoted in the media as accusing tobacco manufacturers of hijacking YouTube by flooding it with videos of glamorous, smoking teens. YouTube and other popular social sites like Facebook and MySpace are running riot with pro-smoking messages which appear to have the fingerprints of tobacco companies all over them. In November 2006, when the authors conducted the research for their study, the use of the
search term "smoking" returned 29,325 videos. For an Australian blogger's reaction, see Melissa's Blog.

Chapman says that tobacco companies are probably responsible for some of the most sophisticated online video promotions, with clips ranging from pro-smoking propaganda to images of celebrity smokers and seductive women smoking cigarettes. Smoking fetish videos are strangely popular. A video mentioned in the study depicts two women blowing smoke into each other's mouths. It had 221,033 views and 142 comments. The majority of feedback was positive (e.g., "Smokin’ HOT HOT HOT. Loved it"). Others were less impressed (e.g., "Lung cancer becomes a STD. Nice.") My attempt to follow the link provided by the authors led to a dead end. Some of the smoking fetish videos are restricted to those over the age of 18, and require registration. Interested readers can go to www.smoking-models.com for abundant examples of the genre.

The invasion of YouTube would be in line with the increasing use of "below the line" forms of viral cigarette marketing, such as promotions at dance parties, disguising market research as sampling promotions, and themed nights in bars and at music festivals. Just as tobacco-company marketers have a presence on youth-friendly venues, it is quite conceivable that they also have a presence on youth-friendly websites.
Here is another quote from Simon Chapman: "If I was a tobacco marketer I'd be saying, 'It's not illegal; it's an international market and it's unregulated,' and it goes right to the heart of what I believe will be the future of tobacco marketing."

Although it is devilishly difficult to prove, it seems clear that young people are being encouraged to take up smoking through pro-tobacco stealth marketing on YouTube. According to the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), stealth marketing is any practice designed to deceive people about the involvement of marketers in a communication. Of course, from the tobacco biz there are only denials and claims that they are clear about their responsibilities to society and their obligations under the tobacco control laws of the countries in which they operate. They admit to the use of buzz marketing techniques, which are to be distinguished from stealth marketing by being, well, less stealthy.

The tobacco
companies could never be criticized for slack performance [1]. Despite overall decreases in youth smoking, thousands of children under the age of 18 still start smoking every day, especially in developing countries. To increase demand among these groups, new, more targeted marketing strategies are being developed. Flavoured cigarettes, with alluring names like Dark Mint, Cool Myst, Midnight Berry and Mocha Taboo, have been successfully flogged in the United States. Complemented by stylish and colourful packaging, these candied cancer sticks contain invisible flavour delivery pellets inside their filters. Fortunately, many states have agreed on an outright ban of such confections, and the American Lung Association is advocating a total ban. As far as I know, they are not permitted in Canada. Whatever happens, the hawkers of halitosis will continue to take advantage of any opportunities, including Web 2.0 innovations, to bring lips to butts.

The good news is that YouTube and the like are obvious vehicles for the dissemination of anti-smoking messages. Health Canada has placed their latest anti-smoking ad on YouTube, and some of the brilliant thetruth.com ads can also be found on the site. Particularly striking is a Marlboro Man spoof entitled You don't always die from tobacco.

The authors conclude their article with some suggestions:

1. YouTube could be lobbied to broaden its definitions of unacceptable material to include those that depict smoking.

2. YouTube could be urged to adopt a rating system for smoking in videos.

3. YouTube is an obvious vehicle for the dissemination of anti-smoking messages. Smoking cessation organizations will need to avoid the corporate marketing pitfall of hiring actors and being deceitful about the origins of the video content. Working with real people who are actually quitting smoking and producing inexpensive video blogs is another possible way for tobacco control to maximize this new form of media.
While the world wide web is being used extensively to sell cigarettes, its largely unregulated status holds much potential as a vehicle for the promotion of both smoking and non-smoking. The web has become a battleground for the lungs of our adolescents, says Professor Chapman.

Is Big Tobacco Stealth Marketing to YouTubers? By usmedstudent (Added to YouTube: 10 May 2007)

A Harvard medical student discusses the implications of the study by Chapman and Freeman.

"I was stunned to learn that Youtube videos containing smoking imagery may be paid for by tobacco companies. Some of these videos with smoking imagery include anywhere from vlogs to movie clips. It's sad, but in hindsight, given the tobacco industry's track record, I shouldn't have been surprised..."

Other videos on buzz marketing and stealth marketing:

Tobacco's stealth marketing


Youtube Members In Stealth Marketing Scam


As One Gatherings : The Future Of Stealth Marketing


Allan Brandt - Health Research and the Tobacco Industry


Complete video at: http://fora.tv/fora/showthread.php?t=810
Medical historian Allan Brandt discusses the history of conflict between health researchers and the American tobacco industry. Allan Brandt researched "The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America," and after doing so for twenty years, he has become one of the top expert witnesses for tobacco-related state and federal cases. In 2004 Brandt took the stand as an expert witness for two full days of cross-examination in the case of U.S. vs. Phillip Morris. The judge's opinion referenced Brandt's testimony nearly 200 times and for the first time ever tobacco companies were found to be in violation of Federal racketeering statutes. Now, in "The Cigarette Century," Brandt presents the definitive history of the cigarette, both as the ultimate cultural icon and as the produce that shaped US agriculture, big business, medicine, and regulatory policies in the 20th century. Making extensive use of previously secret corporate documents which became available in the last decade as a result of litigation, Brandt offers critical analysis of the cigarette controversy and how the industry used sophisticated public relations to invent a modern "disinformation" campaign. -- Allan Brandt is the Amalie Moses Kass Professor of the History of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and holds a joint appointment in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University.


1. Brandt AM. The cigarette century: the rise, fall, and deadly persistence of the product that defined America. Basic Books; 2006.

2. Chapman S. Falling smoking prevalence: how low can we go? Tobacco Control 2007;16:145-7.
Large public awareness campaigns to inform and motivate millions of smokers about quitting seem destined to remain a feature of everyday life in wealthier nations. However, very few poorer nations can afford to even get to the starting line with such campaigns and try in vain to inform their communities via valiant, low-budget efforts at publicity on World No Tobacco Day. A sustained international initiative to fund major public awareness campaigns in nations that could never afford to run such campaigns would make a huge difference to nations in which such awareness remains rudimentary. The profligacy of some areas of tobacco control expenditure in some industrialised nations is embarrassing when there are now many more smokers and deaths caused by smoking in less developed nations.

3. Chapman S. Public health advocacy and tobacco control: making smoking history. Wiley-Blackwell; 2007.
A major new book on advocacy and smoking prevention from the editor of Tobacco Control.

4. Freeman B, Chapman S. Is YouTube telling or selling you something? Tobacco content on the YouTube video sharing website. Tobacco Control 2007;16:207-10
Smoking imagery is prolific and accessible on YouTube. The effectiveness of overt tobacco advertising and sponsorship bans is well established. The industry has responded to these bans by implementing "buzz" or "viral" marketing techniques, such as nightclub and dance party promotions. This paper analyses possible tobacco industry content on the burgeoning consumer-generated media website, YouTube. Tobacco control efforts need to embrace this new medium, in order to counter pro-smoking messages and maximize media advocacy opportunities.

5. Gartner CE, Hall WD, Chapman S, Freeman B. Should the health community promote smokeless tobacco (snus) as a harm reduction measure? PLoS Medicine 2007;4(7)e185 doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0040185 [you can listen here to a Radio 6PR Perth interview of Coral Gartner (11.12mins & 10.2mb) & Simon Chapman (11.06mins & 10.1mb) discussing this paper]
Smokeless tobacco [low nitrosamine oral snuff, or Swedish "snus"] has low appeal for the overwhelming majority of the world’s smokers. There are profound risks in letting tobacco industry tigers off their leash to use snus to subvert the hard-won provisions of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control—provisions that include a ban on all tobacco advertising. Such a ban has already been achieved in some nations, but not in the US, from where much of the enthusiasm for snus now comes.


Unknown said...

Awesome post, Mark. All these new "under the radar" forms of advertising really call for a whole new level of information literacy, don't they? Did you happen to see the recent (related) post on blogs pushing prescription drugs over at http://library4asmallplanet.wordpress.com/2007/12/18 ?

(from http://sjlibrarian.wordpress.com)