Social Smoker

Josephine Baker in a vintage smoking ad

Is social media the final frontier for cigarettes?

Following this week’s High Court decision on plain packaging, there has been speculation that tobacco companies will intensify their efforts online in a bid to promote their brands and the activity of smoking itself now they have been excluded from traditional marketing channels. This landmark decision may have expedited attempts by cigarette manufacturers to actively pursue social media platforms in a last bid attempt to position their brands, retain market share and attract new customers.

All other regulatory efforts by health departments and governments have been met with a dogged determination to find loopholes and creative ‘work-arounds’ so it would come as no surprise if social media is where big tobacco make their ‘last stand’.

The nature of social media must hold significant appeal to cigarette companies. The heartland of teenagers and young people, it’s relatively relaxed regulation and international reach provides ample scope for the covert stealth marketing practices for which tobacco is renowned. Videos on YouTube offer opportunities for product placement, images can be crafted and shared to appeal to target segments and reviews, comments and forums can keep brands top of mind. Even better, user generated content (UGC), offers both anonymity and deniability.

A quick review of cigarette brands across the most popular social media platforms produces a plethora of content. You can repin beautifully styled images of smokers and their Marlboro pack on Pinterest, ‘like’ any one of the multiple Facebook fan pages for Dunhill Red or watch Lucky Strike commercials on YouTube.

With this much compelling content available online, there is no need for Mad Men!

There is however a very strong argument for anti-smoking bodies to start getting social. These platforms can be just as powerful and pervasive for anti-smoking messages and behaviour change social marketing campaigns. Unfortunately though it appears that they are lagging behind – the homepage for Australia’s national Quit campaign (QuitNow) for example does not even have any social media links – so immediate action is required.

Australia could look to Thailand as an example – they have led the way in creating compelling content that has gone viral. The ‘Smoking Kid’ video from the Thai Health Promotion Foundation, had over 800,000 views in its first week on YouTube and the Foundation experienced a 40 per cent increase in the number of calls asking for help to quit smoking.


Ultimately however, it may be that social media self regulates. As the tide continues to turn against smokers and tobacco companies in developing companies we should eventually see social norms reflected back into these platforms and a natural attrition of pro-smoking content.

What do you think?

Until next time..


13 thoughts on “Social Smoker

  1. Hi Kim,
    I am surprised that anti-smoking groups don’t have a strong social media presence. That is a massive miss. When it comes to social change, surely social media is the best vehicle? The Thai ‘smoking kid’ is a good example. The Thai’s actually have quite a few really good anti-smoking adverts.

    In the short term perhaps tobacco companies will take to social media as the final frontier, as you said. However, I don’t think it will last long for them. Consider how the latest ASB & ACCC ruling could affect brands. I think the ACCC would focus on companies/brands such as the tobacco ones first.

    I personally think that changing social norms is our best effort to reduce smoking. Therefore, while I think relegation should still happen in some form, anti-smoking groups developing a strong social media strategy will be very powerful.


    • Kim Edwards says:

      Thanks Murray – I agree, you can regulate as much as possible but loopholes will always be found – the real shift will come from changing behaviour and attitudes and social media could be a great vehicle for this.

  2. Anonymous says:

    A great (and very current) blog post Kim! I also believe that the watchdogs will eventuality attempt to regulate social media presence/advertising by tabacco companies. The only issue is that our legislations in Australia may be very different from the rest of the world. As social media is a global platform, exposure to external content may still take place. It also surprises me that anti-smoking groups havent leveraged off the the power and influence of social media in changing social norms!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hi Kim
    Great post! Its had me thinking all week about if and how social media could be used in isolation.
    I think that big tobacco will certainly use whatever medium it has left. As you pointed out, the relatively unregulated nature of the internet must seem very inviting to them – despite the Tobacco Adverting Prohibition Act ruling out internet advertising (in Australia) as well. Given its resources and history I think they will make a far go at it, but I don’t think it will work, that is, I don’t think by using social media alone it will succeed in persuading people to take up smoking, position their brand or retain market share.
    I don’t think social media can replace traditional media or operate on its own. It’s social. It likes company. And not just the company of those who like it. I think it needs the company of traditional media.
    Pepsi tried and failed to use social media on its own (and has subsequently modified its social media marketing strategy). In 2010 Pepsi decided to not buy any media during the American Super Bowl. Instead it invested as much as 50% of its American branding budget into social media. It ran a campaign called the “Pepsi Refresh Project” in which it gave out 20 million dollars to projects fans deemed most worthy.
    While the campaign was ‘successful’ in terms of social media metrics: over 80 million votes were registered; almost 3.5 million “likes” on the Pepsi Facebook page and almost 60,000 Twitter followers, the company’s market share slid during the campaign period. (Both Pepsi and Diet Pepsi had each lost about 5% of their market in the US and for the first time in living memory Pepsi also lost its number two spot. Diet Coke was then the second biggest cola brand in the US).
    I think that tobacco companies cannot rely simply on social media as an alternative to (what little) traditional media it has left in Australia. I think that social media, without the support of other advertising and or promotion does not work – that is without something or someone pointing out the brand/product there would be little impetus to search it out in the first place. As you mentioned, the many platforms of social media can be used creatively to lead a consumer to an internationally hosted site (one that is currently not bound by Australian laws – though I think it’s a matter of time before some sort of international treaty is reached) but without in- store branding and visibility is this enough?

  4. Tanya Yi says:

    Great post Kim! I really enjoyed the “Smoking Kid” video… sends a very strong message.

    I also believe there’s only so much that governments and regulators can achieve with regard to smoking – smokers know the dangers but will do it anyway. Tobacco companies will always find a way to advertise their brands and social media is another platform (though currently relatively unregulated I agree).

    Alcohol companies are in a similar situation (though I’m sure we will all agree that a glass of red wine a day is actually GOOD for your heart)… One of the most effective ads on alcohol consumption behavior was actually produced by DrinkWise Australia.

    Highlighting that our children LEARN behaviors (whether it’s smoking or drinking) from us is the most powerful approach.

  5. Hi Kim,

    I have a friend who is a Brand Manager for Phillip Morris and she was telling me that the reason why tobacco companies take a very conservative approach towards social media is because they are heavily scrutinized and audited under the advertising and tobacco acts, with massive penalties imposed for even the slightest notion of a breach.

    Check out this awesome ad created for the UK cancer research.

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