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Tobacco Companies Turn To Social Media To Hook Young People

LAUREN GILGER: The marketing prowess of Big Tobacco has been on display for decades. Some of the power was diminished when regulations were put into place banning cigarette advertisements on TV and radio in 1971 and smokeless tobacco ads faced the same prohibition beginning in 1986. But a new study from a team at USC has concluded that tobacco companies have turned to social media and have used that element to effectively attract young people to smoking. Our cohost Steve Goldstein spoke with USC Public Relations and Marketing Professor Rob Kozinets. He was part of the team that researched tobacco and social media. Steve started by asking about how big of a tool social media has been for tobacco companies trying to grab a new generation of smokers.

ROB KOZINETS: Well, you know, I don't think social media is something that you can close off with national borders, although, you know, some countries like China and Saudi Arabia try to do that. But when you're an English-speaking country like the United States, you get stuff from other English-speaking countries and you get a lot of leakage from other places. Our research that we did with Tobacco Free Kids, which is here in Washington D.C., was looking at a number of other countries where American and international big tobacco companies were clearly using social media influencers and using in-person events to recruit young people in order to have them take photos and share them on their feeds. Now those feeds — be they on Instagram or on Facebook or on something else — they don't have international borders either, and they also don't have age limits. And so, you know, when we talk about social media as if the distinctions between age categories or between countries are neat and clear, they're really not. Despite the fact that we certainly didn't find them doing anything that was necessarily illegal in terms of advertising in a way that they shouldn't in America or advertising among age groups that they shouldn't have with, let's say, hiring people who are under 18 years old to be social media influencers who are promoting tobacco, we did find that there was a lot of this activity going on that probably constituted maybe a legal loophole because social media is still largely this unregulated terrain.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Rob, what is the marketing like? I suppose it's a rather obvious question, but what does it appear to be? You know, in many, many days past, of course, the word “cool” was always, how do you make smoking look cool? Is that still the general vibe of the approach?

KOZINETS: Absolutely. It's all about young, hip, cool, attractive people doing really fun things and having adventures. The sophistication of tobacco companies has grown as the number of different options for marketing have multiplied, and they're using hashtags in a really, I'd say, a very advanced way. They're pretty intelligent, and a lot of their hashtags are things that denote movement, they denote decisiveness. They denote, you know taking a risk, they denote in some countries, like for example, the stuff that we saw in Russia. They've linked in with entrepreneurship a lot. So things like mStart, for example, are linked to being innovative and creative, not only in your own life, but also in your business enterprises. In other countries like Brazil, we see it being on the move, being involved in parties, having an active social life. And so these hashtags get created that have maybe some peripheral connection to tobacco. Sometimes it's very loose, like a color, like red but then they get young people to go to these parties and to post pictures of themselves using the hashtag, using backgrounds, and sometimes just holding packages, or with big, you know, cigarette packages in the background, having fun, doing things that are hip and cool. As well in other countries, where, you know, maybe the regulation is even looser places, like Indonesia, we actually see them explicitly recruiting and training young people to do what we'd consider to be traditional influencer marketing or influencer relations, where they're posing with cigarettes, they're having cigarettes be a sort of, you know, part of their daily lives, and so you ask what it looks like. What it looks like is, it looks like a young person out in their city having fun, doing stuff, or in their home, but cigarette packages are there, and they're always nicely posed. They're not crumpled. The health warnings that were on there were kind of being blocked or, you know, shaded by something else, and the cigarette logo was really clear in the photo.

GOLDSTEIN: What, if anything, surprised you about this, about the impact even, or about the sort of the blatant nature of the advertising?

KOZINETS: What was surprising was how sophisticated it is and how lavish it is. I mean, when you think about it, tobacco doesn’t, they have a lot of money and they have a lot of money to spend on marketing. They have very few places to spend it on. And so what we saw starting back in 2016 was these enormous spends on media, on advertising agencies, on public relations agencies, on, you know, incredible events that had all kinds of giveaways. There were press kits, there were paid ambassadors to be there, you know, a lot of this stuff and the scale of it was really quite remarkable. And so the amount of money, the amount of sophistication, the way they had thought through things, like hashtags, was really I think the most surprising part. And the fact that we started to see the same sorts of things in different countries. We saw it in Uruguay. We saw it in Italy. We saw it in Russia. We saw it in Moldova. And it really didn't seem like it was an accident. It seemed like okay, something clearly is going on here. The other thing, to be honest with you, Steve, the thing that was surprising was how people did not want to speak to us. When we tried to recruit people who were ambassadors just to speak with us anonymously as part of the research project. They really didn't want to, and people seemed to be very afraid of, you know, spilling the beans on what was going on here, which was another clue that I think everybody who was involved in it was sort of realizing that this is a gray area, and it may not be illegal, but it's probably not ethical either.

GOLDSTEIN: You know, one of the things we've talked to the CDC in the past about was vaping and some of the flavors and those are attractive to young people, to kids. Where does vaping fit in all this?

KOZINETS: Right. You know, we didn't look at vaping as part of our project, but a lot of other people have them. And what they've found is that, you know, social media is playing a large part in it. Now there's something called organic reach that happens in social media, which means people just sharing pictures on their own and as a natural part of what they're doing and that, you know, that's a big part of social media activity. There are a lot of kids who vape, and there are kids who think that vaping is cool, and there are kids who enjoy taking pictures of themselves vaping and sharing it with their friends, and that's not illegal. But if you start to prompt that in different ways, if you start to pay certain kids, let's say kids — to me, I have three kids. Eighteen is still pretty young in my view. It might be a legal limit. But, you know, you may still not be making very mature decisions. You can't rent a car at age 18, but you can smoke. So encouraging kids of that age to show themselves having a great time and vaping or smoking and other things, I think that's where we start to pass this boundary between whether this is, whether we should be allowing this or not. There are clearly loopholes. I think tobacco companies know and they've known for a long time exactly where those loopholes are. And it's really on us as citizens and it's on regulatory agencies to close up those loopholes and make it a lot harder for them to advertise their wares.

GILGER: That was our co-host Steve Goldstein speaking with Rob Kozinets, professor of public relations and marketing at USC. They were talking about tobacco marketing on social media.

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.