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What Philip Morris’ Influencer Gaffe Can Teach Us about Responsible Storytelling

Culture

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PMI learned the hard way that influencer marketing, while powerful, has its pitfalls and challenges.

Influencers can be a powerful tool to craft and share stories that endear customers to a brand. But what happens when that influence isn’t used responsibly?

A recent gaffe by Philip Morris International can be highly instructive for brands hoping to create strong and responsible influencer relationships – and for Philip Morris’ US distributor Altria.

An Influencer Campaign, Suspended

A recent Reuters investigation has resulted in the suspension of PMI’s latest international influencer campaign, aiming to promote its iOQS product. The reason? Underage influencers.

The tool, designed to utilize “heated tobacco” (versus burned tobacco) is reportedly healthier and safer for its users. However, a major caveat to the tool’s approval in the United States was PMI’s word to the FDA, which “repeatedly assured the regulators that it would warn young people away from the product.” Part of that assurance included internal guidelines that no influencers under the age of 25 could work on behalf of the company. And in Reuters’ review of influencer accounts in Italy, Japan, Romania, Russia, and Switzerland, they discovered accounts affiliated with the brand whose owners were younger than that.

An International Brand, Embarrassed

In their statement announcing the suspension of the influencer program, PMI acceded to the criticism levied by Reuters: “Whilst the influencer in question is a legal age adult smoker, she is under 25 and our guidance called for influencers to be 25+ years of age. This was a clear breach of those guidelines.” They admitted to PR Week, “we are not proud that a mistake was made, but what really matters is outcomes.”

As the company’s US distributor Altria prepares to deploy what they call “a range of marketing, sales, and consumer engagement approaches” to raise awareness of this new product, what should they take away from this misstep?

How to Influence with Integrity

Influencer marketing works successfully when the individual’s target audience aligns positively with the brand’s outcomes. Age-restricted industries like alcohol, tobacco, and even some medications, may struggle to realistically restrict reach on social media—where age verification measures are far more challenging. In these instances, targeted advertising may be a safer and more tightly controlled bet. And in the event that influencers are the strategy you choose to use, ensure there are contractual measures in place for if these individuals misrepresent themselves.

In a larger sense, it’s important to anticipate pitfalls that may come with innovative ideas. When speaking about iOQS’ impending release in the US, PMI CEO André Calantzopoulos praised the company for evolving in a world where tobacco companies are quickly losing ground. He touted PMI’s efforts in “essentially disrupting our business from the inside out. I can’t think of any other business that has attempted such a transformation before. Certainly no other tobacco company.” Innovation can mean moving fast and breaking things, but how big should we allow the things we break to be?

Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids’ president Matthew Myers managed to quantify the potential impact of this gaffe: 179 million views of the hashtag #ioqs across Instagram and Twitter. Without a way to determine the age of these viewers, how can PMI ensure that they’re not reaching underage social users? Add to this the fact that 13 states and over 450 localities have raised the smoking age from 18 to 21, and the ability to incidentally reach an unintended audience goes up considerably.

The bottom line in all this: influencer marketing requires far more supervision and control than some realize. PMI realized this fact the hard way, but your brand doesn’t have to. To do influencer marketing well, brands and influencers need to think critically about the message being shared and the potential audience it will reach—and concede when influencer marketing isn’t the best medium for your message. Doing otherwise violates that responsibility that so matters when we try to tell stories that matter.

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