Big tobacco has always been ahead of the curve, at least from a marketing and advertising standpoint.
From Lucky Strike’s famed tagline: “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet,” to the Marlboro Man to Joe Camel, big tobacco companies have funded some of the most wildly successful advertising campaigns, bringing in billions in revenue. Of course, the world has changed a lot since smiling physicians in white coats touted “More Doctors Smoke Camels.” Tobacco companies can no longer advertise on television and radio. And regulations prevent them from marketing their products to young people. But that hasn’t exactly stopped them.
Today, these same brands are using social media to make an end-run around strict regulations. With the help of both paid and unpaid influencers, tobacco companies have managed to stealthily reach the forbidden fruit: teenagers and young people.
And it’s working. Following the release of a related study, several public health groups filed a petition with the Federal Trade Commission, claiming that the four major tobacco manufacturers are violating federal law by targeting young consumers through deceptive social media marketing. They estimate that, collectively, these campaigns have been viewed 25 billion times around the world, including 8.8 billion times in the United States. Let’s put aside the question of whether or not tobacco companies are acting ethically. Other brands—preferably ones that don’t poison their customers—can learn a lot from big tobacco’s Facebook and Instagram strategies.
Sell a Lifestyle
To fly under the radar, tobacco brands aren’t explicit in what they’re selling. There are no pitches from influencers touting the brand. It’s subtle. A strategically placed pack of cigarettes set next to attractive young people at a bar. A simple shot of a sunset with a glistening drink and a pack of cigarettes in the forefront. Some posts don’t even include cigarettes, or they only show a person smoking, with nary a pack in sight. Tobacco brands aren’t selling a product. They are selling a lifestyle. This is a winning strategy for any consumer brand, be it cars, jewelry, cosmetics, clothing or food and beverage companies.
Own Your Hashtags
Hashtags are key to a successful influencer strategy. Since you’re not relying on branding to sell a product, hashtags become even more important—a way to point your audience in the right direction. Here too, tobacco brands have been masterfully subtle. Instead of including the official #Marlboro hashtag, influencers are using hashtags that are only nominally linked to the brand like #RedIsHere. Some tobacco-linked hashtags promote freedom and independence like #YouDecide and #DecideTonight. Tobacco companies rely on unbranded hashtags, in part, to create perceived distance, but all brands can emulate this strategy. It’s a little like going to an underground bar or club. Everyone wants to be in-the-know, not a pawn in a company’s marketing plan. Unbranded hashtags add to the organic look and feel of a post and give followers more incentive to engage.
Lucky Strike wasn’t exactly subtle when it presented its ambassadors with the following guideline: “cover up the images that are required to be on the packages by law (warning labels).” In this instance, Lucky Strike is trying to cover over the elephant in the room: cigarettes kill. But all brands should pay close attention to their posts—from lighting and imagery to the overall look and feel. Influencer campaigns are about telling a story. Even one incongruous element can ruin the whole picture.
Tobacco campaigns aren’t just engaging in influencer campaigns to skirt federal regulations. They are doing it because it works. Millennials and Gen Z are drawn to influencer campaigns because they are more authentic and trustworthy. As for tobacco companies, their days of stealth marketing may soon come to an end. As part of the petition, anti-smoking groups are asking the federal trade commission to require all tobacco companies to disclose paid ads or endorsements by including hashtags like #sponsored, #promotion or #ad. So much for subtle.