Dr. Robert Kozinets, Jayne and Hans Hufschmid Chair of Strategic Public Relations at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, teamed with Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an advocacy group from Washington, D.C. to conduct research in 10 countries to analyze social media and its hashtags regarding possible cigarette brand marketing.
In 1970, the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act was passed to deregulate cigarette advertising by the tobacco industry. However, instead of television and radio ads, tobacco industries are turning to social media to market their products.
“The laws really only cover television, radios, newspapers and magazines,” Kozinets said. “They don’t cover social media, and [tobacco companies] are managing to find a way around those limitations because the laws are so slow-moving.”
After five months, the research revealed that some social media users have been paid by tobacco companies or compensated with gifts. The researchers also found that certain parties that had free alcohol and giveaways were encouraging attendees to post pictures of themselves in addition to cigarette logos and design elements, resembling cigarette packages, which were in the background of many photos.
“They noticed that tobacco companies seemed to be using social media and having a lot of postings by young people talking about parties and doing interesting things featuring cigarettes,” Kozinets said. “They knew that something was going on in a bunch of countries but they weren’t exactly sure what, so they contacted me to do some research with them around the world.”
Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids decided to launch a petition with the Federal Trade Commission to start spreading the word.
“I think students at USC and elsewhere need to be very aware that there’s a lot of money at stake when they start smoking as students,” Kozinets said. “When you get someone to start when they’re young, they are a smoker for life. Tobacco companies know this, and that’s why they’ve been made to promise that they weren’t going to advertise, but for some reason, our legislation has not kept up with the fact that influencers in social media are a form of advertising.”
According to Kozinets, the University tries to emphasize moral and ethical elements in academics. For example, it offers a course based on ethical marketing.
“In the real world, that doesn’t always happen,” Kozinets said. “You get a lot of gray areas where companies do the unethical things rather than the ethical things, and this study points out how important it is for us to do research that can reveal what’s really going on in these areas because it’s really hard to piece it together.”