Tobacco Info

From Tobacco Info No. 5 - April 2011
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Tobacco companies may be targeting young people on YouTube

By Joe Strizzi

Tobacco industry marketers have proven to be very good at finding their way around legal restrictions, as evidenced by a recent study suggesting that they may now be using the internet to circumvent advertising bans.

According to a study carried out by researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand and published in the journal Tobacco Control in August 2010, tobacco companies may be using online video portals to target young people.

Researchers Elkin, Thomson and Wilson wrote that the internet, to which approximately one quarter of the world’s population has access, is the ideal forum for the commercialisation of tobacco as the result of its loose constraints.

The study’s authors conducted searches on YouTube for videos featuring the top five non-Chinese global tobacco brands: Marlboro, L&M, Benson & Hedges, Winston and Mild Seven. From the initial results, they selected the English language videos with the most views and then analyzed them. A total of 163 videos from the first 20 pages of the search, including 20 clips that were classified by the researchers as “very professionally made,” were examined for content and for the framing of the content: positive, negative, complex, unclear or neutral.

The study, entitled Connecting World Youth with Tobacco Brands: YouTube and the Internet Policy Vacuum on Web 2.0, found that most of the video clips contained images of people smoking branded tobacco products, and some even contained the brand name in their title. The videos studied included the 40 most viewed featuring Marlboro, Winston and Benson & Hedges, with 24 clips for Mild Seven and 19 for L&M cigarettes. Of the 40 videos associated with Marlboro, 39 had the name in the title and 33 included imagery associated with the brand such as a man on a horse. The Marlboro videos were the most widely watched, attracting an average of almost 104,000 views.

What is YouTube?

YouTube is a video-sharing website where users can upload, share and view videos. Three former PayPal employees created YouTube in February 2005. The company is based in San Bruno, California. It uses Adobe Flash Video technology to display a wide variety of user-generated video content, including home-made movie clips, TV clips and music videos, as well as amateur content such as video blogging and short original videos. Most of the content on YouTube has been uploaded by individuals, although media corporations, including CBS and the BBC, offer some of their material via the site as part of the YouTube partnership program. Unregistered users can watch the videos, while registered users are permitted to upload an unlimited number of clips. Videos that are considered to contain potentially offensive content are available only to registered users 18 and older.

The University of Otago study warns that pro-tobacco videos have a significant presence on YouTube. One pro-smoking music video had over two million views, while over 70% of all the videos analyzed had the brand name of the cigarettes in the video. Only 4% of the videos analyzed were classified as anti-tobacco.

Formal denial

Tobacco companies have historically denied advertising on the internet. Catherine Armstrong, a spokesperson for British American Tobacco told the BBC that it was “not our policy to use social networking sites such as Facebook or YouTube to promote our tobacco product brands. Not even the authors of the report claim we have done so. Using social media could breach local advertising laws and our own international marketing standards, which apply to our companies worldwide. Our employees, agencies and service providers should never use social media to promote tobacco brands.”

YouTube responded to the report by saying it does not accept any paid-for tobacco advertising anywhere in the world.

While the researchers do not claim to have undeniable proof of the tobacco industry’s involvement, the report does argue that “there are many highly viewed videos on YouTube that contain specific tobacco brand content, much of it likely to appeal to youth,” and that “tobacco companies stand to benefit greatly from the marketing potential of Web 2.0, [like social networks and video portals] without themselves being at significant risk of being implicated in violation of any laws or advertising code.”

As a result, the researchers conclude that current tobacco advertising restrictions should include Web 2.0.

“It is amazing how many people can be reached via the internet,” said Francois Damphousse, Director of the Quebec office of the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association. “We see that there is a major shift in advertising money, from newspapers that are forced to downsize to online advertising, and the tobacco industry has been at the forefront of taking advantage of such opportunities. Indeed, the tobacco industry has a long history of exploiting any avenue to promote its products, even if that means violating the spirit of the law.”