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Philip Morris burned by its own internal rules on influencer marketing

Published on 04 July 2019

How careful do you need to be when using youthful-looking influencers to promote e-cigarettes?

The background

Philip Morris International (PMI) is an international tobacco company, whose website prominently features its commitment to a “smoke-free future”. In pursuit of that goal, PMI has developed a number of smoke-free products, including a heated tobacco system – the IQOS.

In recognition of its “responsibility to market [its] products responsibly”, PMI has set itself four core marketing principles which apply to its worldwide campaigns, including only marketing to adult smokers and ensuring their marketing is honest and accurate. PMI lauds its own marketing standards as being “in many places, higher than those of some governments”.

One application of its core principles is that PMI “don’t use … youth-oriented celebrities, or models who are or appear to be under the age of 25”.

The issue

In May 2019, following a prompt from Reuters, PMI pulled a global social media marketing campaign, in which a number of influencers under the age of 30 were shown holding and prompting the IQOS. These included what Reuters termed “rail-thin young women”, some of whom are or appear to be under the age of 25.

This embarrassing mistake resulted in significant negative press coverage for the brand, across marketing websites and mainstream media alike. In a statement to Reuters, PMI said: “No laws were broken. However, we set high standards for ourselves and these facts do not excuse our failure to meet those standards in this instance.”

Why is this important?

This episode highlights the importance of companies not just complying with the applicable legal requirements in a marketing campaign, but also complying with their own standards, brand message and social values. Brands invest a large amount of time and money in putting together their ads. Picking the right influencers, who have an impact on consumers while also staying true to the brand’s message and values, can be decisive in determining whether that investment pays off.

Any practical tips?

In addition to complying with legal requirements, setting additional standards and values for advertising can really enhance a brand’s message and add to the effect of marketing campaigns. But companies should always be careful to be true to their own message and any additional standards they set for themselves. Otherwise the potential positives may melt away into an embarrassing negative.

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