IQ News: A Smoke-Free Web? The furor over tobacco marketing reaches the Net.

By Bernhard Warner

Jeff Chester and his staff patrol the Internet daily. Chester, executive director of Campaign for Media Education, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, logs onto a variety of sites for brands and ad agencies, tracking how marketers use the Web to communicate with kids. Lately, he’s been on the lookout for signs of two ubiquitous characters: the Marlboro Man and Joe Camel.

To date, those cigarette icons–widely recognized by consumers and widely criticized by anti-smoking forces–have kept a low profile on the Web. In fact, only a handful of tobacco brands have ventured on-line. But Chester thinks it’s just a matter of time. ‘I anticipate they will transfer all their marketing strategies to the on-line world,’ he says. ‘That’s why we have to be so vigilant.’

Such scrutiny is taking place while a much broader examination of tobacco moves forward. The major tobacco companies are deep into negotiations with 32 state attorneys general and several consumer and health groups. They are trying to hammer out an agreement to cap the cigarette makers’ liability for smoking-related lawsuits; any settlement would, among other things, be likely to impose marketing restrictions on tobacco, possibly including the use of the Internet.

Even though tobacco companies have steered clear of overt brand advertising on the Web, the anti-tobacco groups figure it’s too important a medium to leave out of the talks. The central–and most politically explosive–concern is that digital tobacco brands could influence the legions of Net-savvy teens. Cigarette critics assert the Internet should be treated as a broadcast medium with public interest concerns, such as reducing teenage smoking. They argue that the Web, like TV and radio before it, should be off limits for cigarette ads.

To date, the few appearances by cigarette brands have stirred debate. Brown & Williamson’s Circuit Breaker site, a Webzine highlighting San Francisco nightlife, was launched in February. Conspicuously absent was any mention of the tobacco marketer; the debut coincided with the test launch of Lucky Strike filters in the Bay area. Its Lucky Strike brand has since surfaced on a German site, part of which is in English. R.J. Reynolds’ popular Camel brand is also featured on a German brand site, dubbed Camel Silverpage. A site for a Skoal Smokeless Tobacco-sponsored concert series, dubbed The Roar Tour, makes no mention of the brand.

The Food and Drug Administration, which has some authority over tobacco advertising, won’t say whether it is investigating any cigarette brands for false or misleading ad practices on the Web. Judy Wilkenfeld, a special advisor on advertising, says the smoking gun needed to launch an investigation into a tobacco brand on-line hasn’t surfaced. ‘Until we have that information or that evidence, we’re unwilling to go forward,’ Wilkenfeld notes.

And while Congress hasn’t deemed the Net forbidden turf, several high-traffic on-line publishers that appeal to kids, including Yahoo! and ESPN SportsZone, have decided not to accept tobacco ads. They may be mindful of the proposal by the White House and the FDA to bar tobacco ads from print magazines with large youth readerships.

Big tobacco remains mum about its on-line plans. Philip Morris USA, which owns such famous names as Marlboro, Virginia Slims and Merit, has no corporate or brand sites. It has bought a number of Internet addresses related to its brands and trademarks–mainly to stamp out the possibility of satirical sites, it says, rather than to launch any marketing efforts. PM will only say it is assessing whether the medium fits its future marketing plans.

There’s little doubt the Web could greatly enhance tobacco marketing. Over the past 25 years since they went off the air, tobacco companies have relied heavily on sports sponsorships, print and outdoor media, and frequency campaigns like Camel Cash and Marlboro Gear to reinforce brand loyalty. The industry spends more than $5 billion on such marketing efforts annually. The Internet, with its ability to target specific audiences and build interactive data bases, could replace the loss of any of the currently permitted advertising venues.

John Kamp, senior vice president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, asks who would quibble with Philip Morris if it used the Internet to e-mail promotional offers to loyal Marlboro smokers. ‘What if the known tobacco user was a 16-year-old?’ counters Bill Novelli, president of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. ‘Would that person’s age be known? Age barriers are impossible to erect’ on the Web.

While the industry wants to shed any perceptions it knowingly caters to kids, a categorical ban on Internet marketing would be overkill, says Kamp. ‘As their marketing options decrease, and I assume they will, direct marketing (via the Internet) would be a good option,’ he says.

Chester’s Center for Media Education has made a point of watching out for such on-line tactics by tobacco and alcohol. In March, Chester and Novelli staged a press conference urging the White House and the Federal Communications Commission to examine how popular Internet features–such as on-line communities, chat and games–‘can be seductive appeals to youth, drawing them into an electronic world of indulgence.’

Linda Goldstein, a partner with Hall Dickler Kent Friedman and Wood in New York, says any attempt to limit the Web along the lines of broadcast media will be challenged. ‘There’s substantial technological differences between the two media which would make it dangerous to simply apply the rules that were developed for one type of technology to another,’ she notes. ‘Any widespread regulation at this point would be premature because the medium is still in its infancy.’

Given the volatility of the smoking issue, the cigarette industry is likely to have a troubled adolescence on the Web. ‘I think you’re seeing the tip of the iceberg,’ says CME’s Chester. ‘They’re going to want to come on-line–and we’re going to fight them every step of the way.’

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