Tobacco firms bypass marketing restrictions with clever web campaigns

Tobacco companies may be bypassing marketing bans by secretly posting promotional videos online, according to a study conducted by researchers from the University of Otago, New Zealand, and published in the journal Tobacco Control.

“Tobacco companies stand to benefit greatly from the marketing potential of Web 2.0, without themselves being at significant risk of being implicated in violating any laws or advertising codes,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers analyzed the first 20 pages of YouTube search results featuring five different tobacco brands, consisting of 163 video clips.

“It is disturbing to note that some of the pro-tobacco videos appeared to be of a professional standard, many followed similar themes within a brand and large numbers contained images or music that may be copyrighted to tobacco companies but have not been removed,” they said.

Copyright holders regularly ask YouTube to remove materials used without permission, and the company nearly always complies with such requests.

by David Gutierrez

The researchers noted that nearly 75 percent of all content analyzed was pro-tobacco, while only 4 percent was anti-tobacco. Most of the videos contained branded imagery or footage of people smoking branded tobacco products, while many also featured footage of celebrities, films, music or sports.

Amanda Sandford of Action on Smoking and Health said she was not surprised by the findings, which she called “disturbing but fairly typical of tobacco industry activity.”

“As soon as one avenue of promotion is closed, companies will seek out alternative means of promoting their product and will do anything to get around advertising restrictions,” Sandford said.

The researchers called for all current restrictions on tobacco advertising to be extended to the Internet.

“We can see no functional difference between exposure to tobacco in movies outside the Internet, and exposure to video and film material on the Internet,” researcher George Thomson said.

Smoking is considered the leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

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