Where there’s smoke—or vapor—there’s a potential PR firestorm.
Phillip Morris International has stopped a global social media campaign after reporters discovered the company was partnering with young influencers to sell vaporizer products.
The company has tried to avoid looking like a wealthy corporation seeking to hook young people on an addictive, life-threatening product. However, Phillip Morris has been testing the waters around new vaporizer products as the company looks to the future.
The company has sought to position itself in a new light with ads encouraging users to stop smoking and an organizational shift to vaporizer products that the company says are safer for users. Critics say vaporizers are just as dangerous as cigarettes and can be a gateway product for young users.
Now the company is apologizing for a campaign that used young influencers to promote its IQOS vaporizer device.
“We have taken the decision to suspend all of our product-related digital influencer actions globally,” the company told Reuters. “Whilst the influencer in question is a legal age adult smoker, she is under 25 and our guidance called for influencers to be 25+ years of age. This was a clear breach of that guidance.”
“No laws were broken,” the company told Reuters. “However, we set high standards for ourselves and these facts do not excuse our failure to meet those standards in this instance.”
The company added: “We were deeply disappointed to discover this breach and are grateful that it was brought to our attention.”
The company had also promised regulators that it would dissuade young users from picking up the device in the U.S.—promises that allowed the company to get it past the FDA.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last month decided it would allow sales of the IQOS device in the United States after a two-year review process in which Philip Morris repeatedly assured the regulator that it would warn young people away from the product.
The FDA declined to comment Friday evening on Philip Morris’s decision to suspend the marketing campaign. The agency earlier said it would “keep a close watch on … how the company is marketing its products.”
While most of the social media influencers hired by Philip Morris overseas did not list their ages on Instagram, a Reuters review of the firm’s social media marketing of IQOS in Japan, Italy, Switzerland, Russia and Romania shows that Tapilina’s online persona was typical of what the company called its social media “ambassadors” for the device – rail-thin young women who revel in the high life.
Many tobacco companies have struggled with how to approach online audiences.
Social media marketing has become a flashpoint in the debate over regulation of tobacco products, particularly the newest generation of products such as the wildly popular Juul e-cigarettes.
Some of Juul’s early social media and YouTube marketing included images of attractive young people, particularly at a 2015 product launch party. Twitter images from that time on Juul’s official account featured sensual images of a young woman breathing out Juul vapor in a group, next to the slogan, “Share a #Juulmoment.”
Those early campaigns sparked an explosion of video and photo posts from young people showing themselves using the product at school or with friends, often under the hashtags #doit4juul or #juullife. Juul Labs Inc has since said it stopped using social media influencers and requires anyone in its ads to be a former cigarette smoker older than 35.
For Phillip Morris, the social media campaign has dinged its efforts to reposition itself as steering young people away from smoking and helping older smokers to quit.
Over the past year, Philip Morris has increasingly publicized its “mission” to prevent young people from using tobacco products. Last month, it issued a release calling on “all tobacco and e-cigarette companies to do their part to guard against youth nicotine use.”
“Let me be clear: We at Philip Morris International do not, and will not, market or sell our products to youth,” CEO André Calantzopoulos said during a speech in Boston earlier this month. “For Philip Morris International, age matters.”
When Philip Morris submitted marketing plans with an FDA application for IQOS in 2017, its sample advertisements featured models appearing at least a decade older and wearing modest, professional clothes.
Phillip Morris hasn’t been able to convince critics that its latest marketing moves aren’t sinister attempts to bypass regulations.
The company has pivoted towards marketing smoking alternatives in recent years, with the company’s online manifesto saying it is “designing a smoke-free future.”
Mark MacGregor, Corporate Affairs Director UK and Ireland at Philip Morris International, told CNN the company was “surprised” at the criticism of its campaign. MacGregor said: “This campaign is designed to stop people smoking and to give up cigarettes as fast as possible.
“If we simply stopped selling cigarettes tomorrow, literally all that would happen is that smokers would switch to our competitors’ products,” he added.
The new campaign is drawing criticism from cancer watchdogs, however.
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health, said: “Wherever it’s legal, Philip Morris is still advertising its Marlboro brand. The fact of the matter is that it can no longer do that in the UK; we’re a dark market where all advertising, promotion and sponsorship is banned, and cigarettes are in plain packs.
“So, instead, Philip Morris is promoting the company name, which is inextricably linked with Marlboro. That’s why we’re suspicious. If Philip Morris really wanted a smoke-free world, it would support every country having tobacco regulations as strict as those in the UK.”
Dan Cullen-Shute, chief executive of Creature, rejected the company’s moves, decrying it as “faux-worthy, ‘we’re just trying to help’ bullshit”.
On Twitter, Phillip Morris hasn’t taken down its recent messages encouraging users to stop smoking. The company shared an animation for Mother’s Day that suggested moms should give up smoking to spend more time with their families.
— Philip Morris Intl (@InsidePMI) May 12, 2019
The incident is another reminder to companies planning to use social media influencer networks or agencies. Relying on others to adhere to your advertising standards might not work—and blaming a contractor won’t deflect the backlash.