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Social media the new battleground in the war against Big Tobacco

30 June 2011

Big Tobacco is taking its aggressive marketing online and those fighting to curb smoking rates need to follow suit.Photo: Craig Abraham

Sun Tzu wrote that “all warfare is based on deception”. This maxim seems to have been taken to heart by Big Tobacco as it seeks to use the fight over plain packaging, which is destined for the courts, to distract from a more important advertising realm – social media.

From the perspective of Big Tobacco, a federal government ban on plain packaging is not the greatest threat it faces. Far from it. Plain packaging is like the killing of Osama Bin Laden – an important and sweet victory for coalition forces – but not the main game. The danger to our anti-smoking heroes is that if they focus all their efforts on this battle, then the enemy may outflank them.

The real fight is quickly unfolding in social media. Evidence is emerging, including from the World Health Organization and the University of Sydney’s Becky Freeman and Simon Chapman, that Big Tobacco is moving its estimated annual marketing spend of tens of billions of dollars online – and fast.

The incredible growth of “consumer driven” online fan groups for the Marlboro Man and Joe Camel, plus viral YouTube content and slick sponsorships are evidence of the marshalling of the troops on this front. Brands are being strengthened and smoking initiated with the help of social media. The government and public health campaigners are engaged in these fights yet distraction from them could give Big Tobacco the time it needs to dig trenches, secure allies and settle in for the long term. It is in the interests of Big Tobacco to keep the campaign focused on the plain-packaging front.

Of course the fight for plain packaging must be won, as many assume it will. But anti-smoking advocates, including government, should also consider what mix of limited public resources is most effective. Policy makers often argue that the best solutions to problems are better regulation. And in many cases they are right, including on smoking.

Some efforts are made to complement regulation with public awareness campaigns and appeals to industry, however, often these are ineffective and sometimes add to the problem. Typically this returns the focus to regulations. Yet in the complex online world, regulation will take a long time to catch up as control shifts from companies and governments to users, consumers and citizens.

But there is good news for those fighting the good fight. While anti-smoking policy makers grapple with the application of conventions and regulations to social media, there is evidence that beating Big Tobacco at their own game through social marketing is effective at preventing smoking initiation, especially among young people.

Both anti-smoking advocates and Big Tobacco are fighting the plain-packaging battle because they start from the same premise – marketing works. However, an entrenched resistance to marketing among many policymakers is proving to be one of the biggest barriers to success in the war against Big Tobacco. Rather than resist marketing, anti-smoking campaigners should trust evidence that marketing can help convert consumers to healthier lifestyles. And this could hold the key to success in the difficult-to-regulate social media realm.

Success from social marketing campaigns shows us the way to beat Big Tobacco. These include the Truth (anti-smoking) program from the US which, according to George Washington University’s W. Douglas Evans, is building its brand through social media with positive images of non-smoking youth as cool and confident rebels fighting against the tobacco industry. Others include the Queensland alcohol campaign “Becky’s not drinking”, the SunSmart campaign against skin cancer “Slip! Slop! Slap! and many others. These campaigns were successful because they understood the barriers and benefits to behaviours, how influence is disseminated and they didn’t wag their fingers or treat people as stupid. These campaigns built brands that people trust.

The concepts of connection, dissemination and trust are the fundamentals of social media, where Big Tobacco is starting to assert dominance. If we concentrate our limited resources on regulation over plain packaging and not enough in social media, we risk being distracted by Big Tobacco and losing the war against smoking.

Nicholas Goodwin works in social marketing and international development and is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney’s Department of Media and Communications in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. He tweets using @nickgoodwin.

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