Tobacco firms 'may be illicitly advertising on YouTube'

Posted by Emma Woollacott

A New Zealand researcher is claiming that the tobacco industry may be using YouTube to push its products surreptitiously.

Dr George Thomson of the University of Otago says that despite vehement denials and a voluntary industry agreement, tobacco companies may be uploading videos with pro-smoking content.

YouTube says it doesn't accept paid-for tobacco advertising, but it doesn't ban smoking related content.

Thomson searched through the first 20 pages of video clips containing any reference to five tobacco brands - Marlboro and L&M, marketed by Philip Morris; Benson and Hedges, marketed by both British American Tobacco and Gallagher; and Winston and Mild Seven, marketed by Japan Tobacco and Reynolds.

The team analyzed 163 clips altogether - and say more than 20 appeared to be "very professionally made".

Almost three quarters of the content found was classified as pro-tobacco, with less than four percent classified as anti.Seventy percent of the clips contained brand images of people smoking branded tobacco products, and most had brand content or the brand name actually in the title.

Of 40 videos with a reference to Marlboro, 39 had the name in the title, and 33 wererelated to the company branding — for example, with images of a man on a horse or the Marlboro advertisement theme. Some of the material clearly derives directly from advertising - there's an example here.

Thomson concludes that the tobacco companies are likely to be involved in the making of the videos, although they've repeatedly denied it. He cites the industry's long history of covert marketing as revealed by internal documents, and says: "There is no reason to believe companies when they say they don’t use the internet." 

Thomson's a brave man. But, he told TG Daily: "The industry has a long history of using legal threats as a weapon, but we see that possible harassment as part of our work context. Universities here (and Otago in particular) are resistant to such threats."