Phillip Morris International has pulled the plug on their global social media campaign for the IQOS heat-not-burn device. A Reuters investigation revealed the use of youthful social media influencers. This is exactly what they didn't need to be accused of in the current political climate in the US.
The influencer in question, Alina Taplina, almost certainly had a low impact on IQOS sales, but may prove to be a public relations nighmare because she is only 21 years old. The confluence of the teen vaping epidemic and the FDA approval of the IQOS have made this revelation a newsworthy item.
In the words of Reuters, "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."
In Tapalina's case, "Revel in the high-life" apparently means posing in fashionable clothes, purchasing skin care products and sampling food in scenic locales. It is unclear why she has chosen that approach.
Donning drab, ill-fitting clothes and posing sullenly while eating cans of beans next to abandoned buildings would surely build a more desirable brand.
Alina Tapilina (@alina_tapilina) is at the center of this scandal. The 21 year old Russian woman was paid to pose with an IQOS in an Instagram posts, and used the hashtag #iqosambassador. Her post had the typical influencer blend of self-care and product placement, with impeccable image quality, lighting, and framing present in all of her posts.
She declared the IQOS left "even less of a smell on clothes and hair", and that the product "charged 15 percent faster." She even included a statement about how the IQOS has 90 percent fewer chemicals than smoke and was better for the environment.
Phillip Morris prohibits the use of “youth oriented celebrities” and “models who are or appear to be under the age of 21.” This is the minimum age permitted in the UK, but they apply this policy to all marketing materials.
Phillip Morris told PR Week: “Upon learning of these allegations, PMI immediately initiated and concluded an internal investigation and took swift action to address an instance of influencer engagement in breach of our digital influencer guidance.” This misstep has damaged the already battered reputation of Phillip Morris.
It should be noted that all of these images are still available on Instagram.
The other influencer featured in the report by Reuters, @natsu_772 has a much more robust following of over 85,000. Unfortunately, her age is unknown and this would appear to be rather pertinent information if the accusation is marketing to minors. Phillip Morris stated that they did not break any laws by hiring a 21 year old.
Whether it is old media or new, the truism that "image is everything" still applies.
Unlike Tapalina, Natsu_772 has multiple IQOS posts and they generally have received about 2,000 likes as well.
Critics Attack Phillip Morris
Matthew Myers, the President of Tobacco-Free Kids, was quick to pounce, arguing that the use of a 21 year old influencer demonstrates "Philip Morris’ utter lack of sincerity when they promise to market IQOS only to existing smokers and not to youth and non-smokers – a promise the FDA relied on when it recently authorised the sale of IQOS in the United States."
Because Phillip Morris paid for the services of Tapalina, "Their claim to market IQOS only to existing smokers has been exposed as the fraud that it is."
"For months, Philip Morris has marketed IQOS on social media to millions of young people, and they didn’t stop until they were caught. While Philip Morris tried to spin the issue as an isolated mistake of paying a 21-year-old social media influencer in Russia, Reuters documented multiple examples of how they have marketed IQOS on Instagram, often using young, attractive influencers."
His proof of this bold claim, the hashtag #iqos has been viewed 179 million times on Instagram and Twitter. This metric muddies the water a bit, as the reach of the Tapilina post has 2352 likes as of 5/13/2019, and 49 comments. Hashtags count general user generated content and paid influencers. Moreover, there is some question about the actual relevance of the "reach" metric and click through rates when Instagram does not support e-cigarette sales or post promotion.
After deducting the fee the paid Ms. Tapalina and considering the fact that Phillip Morris will be forever branded as marketing the IQOS to minors, it is fair to say that a reach of several thousand on Instagram is not much of a return on investment. No wonder they were so quick to pull the plug.
Millenial Does Not Equal Minor
Now is as good of a time as any to remind the reader of a salient fact: millennial does not equal minor. The millennial demographic cohort ranges from 23 to 38 years of age. The CDC Tobacco Fact Sheet shows that the recent gains in made in reducing smoking rates do not apply to millennials, but to the younger Generation Z.
Armed with these facts, it is understandable why Phillip Morris might want to target smokers under the age of 35, but the use of social media to promote nicotine is risky business.
Hiring a 21 year old was an error, but misconceptions about what is a millennial and who is using social media has made it all but impossible to advertise to anyone who has yet to reach middle age on channels like Facebook and Instagram.
At Vapor4life, we have no interest in selling any of our products to minors. We rely on the most rigorous age verification practices and technology for our e-commerce store. Our Northbrook vape shop relies on the simple expedient of denying entry to anyone without valid ID, regardless of age, and providing industry leading training to our customer service employees.
US Senate Targets Juul
The complaints about Phillip Morris should sound familiar to anyone tracking the teen vaping epidemic in the US. The US Senate has accused Juul of marketing to minors and has launched an investigation into their practices on social media.
Juul’s short lived social media campaign concluded three years ago, but unfortunately lives on in the form of the Senate investigation and a preposterous Stanford e-cigarette marketing “study”. The word study is in quotes because it is a curated gallery of images.
Stanford E-Cig Marketing Study
It is important not to downplay the dangers of teen vaping, but it is enlightening to see how loosely the authors of the Stanford study defined “marketing to teens”. Apparently, free samples at sporting events and concerts automatically qualifies.
Without specific details on the concerts in question, the live gate and ticket sales, I cannot debunk this claim. But a distinction should be drawn between adults in their 20s and the minors who are driving the teen vaping epidemic.
The report summary from the Stanford study are not a credit to the university, and embody the very worst aspects of soft science. Discussing Juul’s short lived “Vaporized” campaign, they noted that Juul’s campaign, “featured models in their 20s appearing in trendy clothes engaged in poses and movements more evocative of underage teens than mature adults.”
This word salad could mean almost anything. Youthful models and bright colors are standard advertising fare. You don’t see Lincoln commercials featuring octogenarians, bragging about their first taste of true luxury: a brown, landau topped Continental Mark IV.
Complaints about playful posing and bright colors appear throughout the Stanford survey on e-cig marketing. Perhaps awkward, sullen, seething and sickly models should have been employed instead.
Targeting Teens With E-Cig Ads
Luckily, the Stanford study authors provided additional clarification. “Some attendees were photographed in poses reminiscent of teen behavior, such as wearing a hat on backwards, while holding a skate board, or a girl with purple hair holding a Juul.” Sounds a bit like Poochie the Dog from a classic Simpson’s episode.
Further illustrating the depravity of the campaign, “Photos show attractive young girls in colorful Juul tee shirts serving as hosts and distributors of free samples.”
Far be it from me to assume how these women want to characterize themselves. They are young, and by all accounts female. But to call them “young girls” seems to be a misogynistic leap.
Would two men of the same age and in gender equivalent outfits be labelled as “young boys”? It feels a bit inappropriate and even insulting, but who am I to judge what is offensive?