Nearly two-thirds (65%) of the global population uses the internet for an average of more than 6 hours each day, and 60% are on social media. As people have shifted to these digital environments, marketers have followed, including those selling unhealthy products like tobacco, alcohol and ultra-processed foods. Unfortunately, many online spaces are underregulated and under-monitored, allowing for this type of marketing to flourish.
To help governments take action against digital tobacco marketing, Vital Strategies started the Tobacco Enforcement and Reporting Movement (TERM) in 2021 to monitor and report on tobacco marketing on social media and news sites. TERM is currently operating in India, Indonesia and Mexico.
In a new report, “The Next Frontier in Tobacco Marketing: The Metaverse, NFTs, Advergames and More,” the TERM team summarizes marketing tactics observed over multiple years of monitoring. These include well-established tobacco marketing tactics, like influencer promotions, as well as those that are lesser known, such as advergaming—the use of mobile games to advertise products. The report also looks at the future of digital tobacco marketing as new technologies and tools, such as the metaverse, are introduced.
The metaverse is a more three-dimensional, game-like version of the internet that uses augmented  and virtual reality . Many experts think it will be widely adopted within the next few decades and change the way we experience the internet.
TERM found evidence of metaverse tobacco promotions in India and Indonesia. In India, a tobacco company sponsored the first metaverse wedding and a metaverse gift-giving event for the Diwali festival with promotions of its chocolate and juice brands. In Indonesia, metaverse art appears in an Instagram account associated with Djarum L.A. Ice kretek (clove) cigarettes to suggest that people spend time in the metaverse. Avatars are pictured smoking, with cigarette packages on the table.
NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, represent ownership over unique digital assets that can be sold or traded, such as artwork or videos, that exist on a blockchain and cannot be duplicated. Brands are using NFTs to establish a closer relationship with their customers by inviting them to own a unique, “special” piece of it.
In India, TERM observed an NFT that was developed and promoted to celebrate a tobacco company’s anniversary and founders.
Advergaming is the development of online games to advertise a brand or product. Advergaming facilitates more interaction with the brand, which is especially targeted to children and youth.
In India, TERM observed marketing for a game-like mobile ad created for a tobacco company’s candy brand, which was reported to have reached close to 5 million users. Tobacco companies in India have employed this tactic of producing nontobacco products under the same company name they use for tobacco products (also known as “brand extension”) to appear like normal corporate actors and evade tobacco marketing restrictions. In the advergame, as users grab candies, the company’s logo is displayed on the screen, fostering associations with its well-known tobacco brands.
Content marketing is entertainment content developed by a tobacco company that serves as a stand-alone promotion for their tobacco brand and tobacco use. This type of marketing blurs the line between content and advertising.
In Indonesia, TERM found Spotify podcasts and a popular YouTube web series that reached an audience of more than 1.6 million. While this content focused on lifestyle topics, it indirectly promoted Djarum’s Super Mild cigarettes via the use of similar branding.
Online retail is a form of e-commerce that allows consumers to buy goods online using the tools that facilitate purchases. The power of digital marketing is that potential customers can directly click through from marketing to an e-commerce site, a step that is not available via traditional marketing.
TERM observed the use of several digital platforms that sell tobacco products—including websites and e-commerce apps—even when such sales are banned. In Indonesia, for example, social media accounts promoting electronic cigarettes may direct customers to e-commerce apps like Shopee and Tokopedia. In India, which has strict restrictions on tobacco marketing, social media accounts encourage potential customers to reach out via direct messages (WhatsApp, Facebook messenger). This type of social media has been coined “dark social,” since it is more challenging to monitor.
Influential social media users are paid by tobacco companies to promote brands and products to their followers. This tactic is now being heavily used for newer products like electronic cigarettes. Marketing from influencers has been found to be perceived as more authentic than ads directly from brands.
TERM does not monitor influencer accounts. However, the monitoring system captures content that is reposted to electronic cigarette accounts in Indonesia from what appear to be accounts of influencers and potential paid endorsers.
Several electronic cigarette brands also run programs to recruit users to promote their products in exchange for money or other benefits.
The report is a wake-up call for tobacco control stakeholders, encouraging them to respond to the evolving media landscape with smart policy and enforcement mechanisms. This includes:
- Introducing or improving comprehensive policies that prohibit all forms of tobacco marketing across all platforms, including those based on newer technologies;
- Staying ahead of technological developments to act early; and
- Determining jurisdictional oversight, including for newer and evolving platforms, and the appropriate mechanisms for enforcement.
Read the full report here.
Vital Strategies’ Tobacco Enforcement and Reporting Movement (TERM) is an AI- powered, expert-driven monitoring system built in response to the industry seizing on the power of digital platforms. TERM tracks and analyzes tobacco marketing using news and social media listening, and packages findings into easy-to-read reports that are available for governments, tobacco control advocates, researchers, journalists and other stakeholders. Find out more at termcommunity.org. Follow us on Twitter @TERMCommunity and Instagram termcommunity.
 Augmented reality: The integration of digital information, such as photos or audio, into people’s real-life environments.
 Virtual reality: A three-dimensional environment in which people can interact with virtual surroundings.