BAT’s Instagram Vaping Promotions Banned by U.K. Ad Watchdog

(Bloomberg) --

British American Tobacco Plc was banned by the U.K.’s advertising regulator from using public Instagram accounts to promote smoking alternatives like Vype e-cigarettes.

The decision announced Wednesday by the Advertising Standards Authority means the company also won’t be able to market products via social media influencers, whose accounts often have vast numbers of followers. The watchdog’s ruling followed a probe of seven BAT posts in February and March.

The Advertising Standards Authority didn’t uphold a complaint that BAT had designed ads to target youth. Even so, its ruling highlights a gray area in marketing tobacco and nicotine products on social media, where companies can avoid actual ads and increasingly rely on influencer marketing that is seen to appeal to young people. The use of hashtags can also make seemingly unrelated posts appear in feeds and searches.

One post that was part of the investigation into BAT paired a photo of the Vype product with text congratulating actor Rami Malek on his award for portraying Freddie Mercury in the movie “Bohemian Rhapsody,” saying “from one winner to another.” The post included hashtags on the Vype product and the British version of the Oscars, the Baftas, before advising that it contains nicotine and is meant for people aged 18 and above.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids was among the organizations that filed complaints earlier this year, alleging BAT’s posts on social media were designed to maximize exposure of e-cigarettes to children, teenagers and non-nicotine users. BAT will have to remove all Instagram ads for Vype that were under investigation.

‘Change Needed’

“Urgent policy change is needed from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to prevent BAT and other tobacco companies from using social media to advertise their harmful products to young people around the world,” Mark Hurley, the campaign’s director of international communications, said in a statement.

Facebook Inc., which owns Instagram, plans to announce later on Wednesday that it will no longer allow paid promotions of e-cigarettes or tobacco, according to a company representative. It already prohibits advertisements that promote the sale or use of such products.

Declining cigarette use poses the biggest disruption to the tobacco industry in years, and companies are relying on next-generation products like heated tobacco and e-cigarettes to boost growth.

Social media is a huge channel that helps BAT reach adult consumers to drive awareness of new products, Simon Cleverly, the company’s group head of corporate affairs, said in a statement. BAT is looking into potential improvements for age-verifying processes in its marketing, he said.

Juul Labs Inc., at the center of the storm over vaping in the U.S., is being probed for its marketing practices for allegedly enticing teens with fruity flavors and Instagram ads.

Michael R. Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, has campaigned and given money in support of a nationwide ban on flavored e-cigarettes and tobacco.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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