Article Text

Tobacco control advocacy in the age of social media: using Facebook, Twitter and Change
  1. Marita Hefler,
  2. Becky Freeman,
  3. Simon Chapman
  1. A27-School of Public Health, University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Marita Hefler, A27-School of Public Health, Room 129A, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia; marita.hefler{at}


The tobacco industry's use of social media sites, such as Facebook, is an emerging area of research; however, this is the first study of the potential for social media to advance tobacco control. This paper presents three case studies of using social media for tobacco control advocacy, demonstrates how social media can facilitate direct and effective action, and provides tools and lessons learned for future campaigns.

  • Advocacy
  • Advertising and Promotion
  • Public opinion
  • Media
  • Tobacco industry

Statistics from


In February 2010, we launched a Facebook page called Monitoring Tobacco Advertising, Promotion and Sponsorship 2.0 (TAPS 2.0) The page was established for two purposes: (1) as a public repository to share examples of tobacco industry advertising and promotion and (2) to mobilise tobacco control advocacy and activism against industry advertising. The page and the authors’ Twitter accounts were used to generate support from members to take action through other Facebook pages, and the social activism platform for specific advocacy campaigns. For those unfamiliar with how Facebook, Twitter and function, a brief explanation is provided here (see web-only data supplement appendix 1).

The Facebook TAPS 2.0 page is an open-access page, meaning that any Facebook user can view the content and that content may also be found through internet searches. Becoming a ‘member’ is a simple one-step process of ‘liking’ the page. Members can post comments, links to photos, other websites or videos, and comment on content posted by others. Posts may then appear on members’ news feed, and be shared among their wider circle of Facebook friends. This can alert others to the page, stimulating some to join. On launching the page, we advertised it widely through tobacco control networks, such as Globalink, public health conferences and academic networks.

As of 24 October 2011, there were 1271 members of the page. Many of these were already active in tobacco control and had likely become aware of the page through tobacco control networks. Several members were involved with other tobacco control websites and Facebook pages. Some members appeared to work in marketing, advertising or public relations, several of whom worked for companies associated with the tobacco industry. The greatest number of members are from the USA (264), followed by Australia (238), Canada (118), UK (77), Indonesia (44), India (41), with the remainder from South America, Asia, Europe, and a small number from the Middle East. Facebook and Google have been the most popular referral sources to the page, with most of the remainder coming from tobacco control-specific sites, such as Globalink, our own website and tobacco control non-governmental organisations. Regular posting of content resulted in steady incremental increases in membership. Engagement with specific content remained steady throughout the period of the research.

The page has continually received submissions and comments on tobacco industry promotions from around the world, including photos of advertisements, links to sponsored events, and examples of tobacco packages and giveaways. Advocacy against tobacco sponsorship of youth-targeted music events in Indonesia has attracted particular activity among page members. As page moderators, we used a range of strategies, including generating news coverage, posting protests through other Facebook pages, online petitions, and generating protests through Twitter. Many members of the Facebook page responded to calls for action regarding the three case studies presented below.

Case study 1: action to ask Kelly Clarkson to remove tobacco sponsorship from Indonesia concert

Kelly Clarkson is a US singer who, in 2002, shot to worldwide fame after she won the first season of the popular US television show, American Idol. In March 2010, billboards appeared in Jakarta advertising a Clarkson concert scheduled for 29 April. The concert was sponsored by LA Lights, a brand owned by PT Djarum, Indonesia's third largest tobacco company. The LA Lights logo featured prominently on billboards and associated advertising material. Given Clarkson's strong teen appeal, the sponsorship was widely criticised by health groups in Indonesia, the USA and Australia (where she toured immediately prior to arriving in Indonesia). The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids (CTFK) issued a press release and wrote to Clarkson's management to request that the sponsorship be withdrawn.1 This was supported by the Southeast Asian Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA) and other tobacco control and child welfare agencies in Indonesia. When no response was received, we set up a Facebook page called ‘Tell Kelly Clarkson to drop tobacco sponsorship’ (!/pages/Tell-Kelly-Clarkson-to-drop-tobacco-sponsorship/110657445641541). We encouraged members to post messages urging Clarkson to drop the sponsorship on her Facebook fan page ( and to join the Facebook page urging her to drop sponsorship.

In less than a week, the ‘Tell Kelly Clarkson to drop tobacco sponsorship’ page had over 450 members, many of whom also posted on Clarkson's Facebook fan page. The volume of protest attracted further press coverage, causing Clarkson to respond publicly. Initially she distanced herself from the controversy, stating on her personal blog that she had been unaware of the sponsorship arrangement, and believed she was being unfairly targeted for a political issue that was beyond her control. She stated that while she was not a smoker and did not wish to promote cigarettes, she ‘refused to cancel on her fans’.2 Her response failed to quell the controversy and protests, with fans continuing to urge her to take responsibility

as a business person, you are ultimately responsible for your image and how you are portrayed. You need to tell L.A. Lights to cram it, … and tell everyone that you will NOT be used to trick kids into becoming addicted to their product! Your fans will respect you more for doing the right thing. 3

Within a few days, an agreement was reached with the promoter for the sponsorship to be withdrawn. Clarkson's Jakarta concert went ahead without the sponsorship, and promotional billboards for the concert featuring the LA Lights logo were taken down (figure 1).

Figure 1

Screenshot of Facebook page ‘Tell Kelly Clarkson to drop tobacco sponsorship’. This figure is only reproduced in colour in the online version.

Case study 2: action to remove tobacco sponsorship from Java Rockin’ Land 2010 international music festival in Indonesia

In August 2010, a member of the Facebook TAPS 2.0 page posted information about Java Rockin’ Land, an international music festival scheduled for October in Jakarta, sponsored by Indonesia's second largest tobacco company, Gudang Garam. Headline bands for the festival were from the USA, UK and Australia. We advised international networks about the sponsorship, and tobacco control organisations in each of the artists’ home countries alerted the media. We also urged members of our Facebook TAPS 2.0 page to post to each of the bands’ Facebook pages. The issue received widespread media coverage, particularly in Australia, where Wolfmother, one of the bands involved, was prominent at the time of the concert. Several stories were published about the issue, generating heated online discussion. One opinion article by two of the authors generated 124 online reader comments, many hotly contesting that musicians should reject tobacco sponsorship. How about we leave this up to the Indonesian government? How about we leave this up to the Indonesian people?…..What happened to freedom of choice? Are we not allowed to make bad choices? These musicians are making a living from their music, not the advertisement of cigarettes. Believe it or not, it isn't their responsibility to make sure they are not promoting unhealthy choices. You two really have your work cut out for you. I hope you don't succeed in this. Why should Indonesian's (sic) miss out on the performances of our rockstars because you think their government isn't strict enough on cigarette advertising? Who do you think you are?4

Within a few hours of the story appearing in the Australian media, Andrew Stockdale, the lead guitarist and singer of Wolfmother, published a statement advising that the band would be withdrawing from the concert due to the tobacco sponsorship: With the severity of the issue of smoking in Indonesia, I completely understand that bands playing with promo girls handing out cigarettes isn't going to help kids stop smoking in Indonesia…So it is without hesitation I will now announce that we will be cancelling our headline show at Java Rockin’ Land on the 10th of October 2010. We are very regretful to miss this opportunity to play to our Indonesian fans, though hopefully in the not too distant future we can do more shows under different terms.5

The band was removed from the Java Rockin’ Land lineup on the festival website on 22 September, and news that the band had withdrawn started to filter through fan sites and the band's Facebook page. However, within 24 hours, the statement was withdrawn and the band were restored to the lineup on the festival webpage. Clarification was sought by media outlets that had published stories about the event, with a statement subsequently published on the band's website: Wolfmother will be playing at Java Rockin’ land Festival on October 10th. This one is for the fans in Indonesia who have parted with their very own cold hard cash to see Wolfmother. We realize their (sic) are sponsors and we neither support or (sic) condemn the sponsors affiliated with the festival. We are very much looking forward to what we hope will be the first of many shows to come in Indonesia.

The band's agent added: (The band's management) have pretty much confirmed Wolfmother will be performing…Andrew was freaked out but then having thought about his job as a performer…He does not endorse any tobacco company, any alcohol company, that's none of his business. That's the promoters that have made those arrangements and he doesn't want to let down his fans.6

Despite ongoing pressure, Wolfmother went ahead and played at the festival.

The CTFK, the SEATCA, and the Indonesian National Commission for Child Protection, publicly criticised the festival sponsorship through media releases. A petition was also started by the then health editor of targeting one of the US bands, the Smashing Pumpkins.7 The petition generated 570 signatures, and helped add to the media coverage in the USA, although the band did not respond. In the UK, ASH Wales spearheaded a media campaign condemning the involvement of UK bands, particularly the Welsh band, Stereophonics.8 ,9

Apart from Wolfmother, none of the bands involved in the festival responded to criticisms, and all went ahead with their appearance.

Case study 3: action to remove tobacco sponsorship from Java Rockin Land 2011 international music festival in Indonesia

In May 2011, the third Java Rockin’ Land festival was announced, again with Gudang Garam as sponsor. Once again, the festival featured a lineup of prominent international artists, this time from the USA, UK, Ireland and The Philippines. As with many other previous tobacco-sponsored concerts, most of the bands had a high level of teen appeal. Several band members were also active in philanthropic efforts, such as supporting critically ill children (Jared Leto of 30 seconds to Mars10), being a UNICEF goodwill ambassador (Joel Madden of Good Charlotte11), and supporting a cancer charity (all members of the band, Blood Red Shoes12). Given the number of artists appearing, we decided to focus action through an online petition targeting the artists’ management and press agents. The petition was publicised through our Facebook page, other tobacco control organisations, and Facebook pages and Twitter. We also posted on the bands’ Facebook pages, and used Twitter to contact individual artists. As part of the petition, we researched the bands’ philanthropic activities and political advocacy, and identified a number of causes inconsistent with promoting tobacco, which were then highlighted in the petition and associated press releases.13–16

The petition ran until the date of the concert, a total of 6 weeks. It generated 2173 signatures, at the time the second highest achieved for a tobacco-related petition on Each new signature sends an individual email to the people targeted in the petition, in this case, meaning that the petition generated over 50 000 emails. Change offers a simple tracking dashboard visible to the petition creator, which showed the petition was shared over 1000 times by email, Twitter and Facebook, leading to a total of 7499 page visits, meaning that just over a quarter of visits were converted to a petition signature. also offers a blog and news service, which we used to publish stories highlighting different aspects of the campaign.15 ,17 It also has a team of organisers and journalists which provided support to reach out to US media outlets, resulting in the story running in at least three US news publications.17–19 These stories were then able to be linked to the campaign, and further disseminated via Twitter and Facebook. has a significant Twitter presence (over 180 000 followers at the time of the campaign) which further increases the reach of petitions to target audiences. Twitter proved to be an essential tool in sharing information about the petition. Using the Twitter-tracking programme,, it was determined that over 180 000 people were reached by one tweet alone. Several other tweets reached as many as 10 000 users per tweet. An initial tweet that only reached 100 followers went on to be retweeted several times, with each retweet reaching from several hundred to as many as 3000 people per retweet.

One US band in particular, Neon Trees, had a history of antitobacco advocacy, and band members acknowledged on Twitter that the situation of appearing under tobacco sponsorship was ‘less than ideal’. As the concert neared, we challenged them on Twitter to donate their appearance fee to an Indonesian cancer charity. They responded positively, and announced at the end of their set that they would donate their earnings. Another of the performers, Joel Madden of the band, Good Charlotte, responded directly to our campaign via Twitter. The response was sarcastic in tone, and indicated that he resented being targeted over the issue. Nonetheless, the response demonstrates that we were able to directly reach these internationally acclaimed artists and force them to acknowledge the issue. Again, Twitter allowed this exchange to take place immediately and under public scrutiny (figure 2).

Figure 2

Screen shot of Twitter response from Tyler Glenn, Neon Trees band member challenge to donate sponsorship fee to Indonesian cancer charity. This figure is only reproduced in colour in the online version.


These case studies highlight the potential for social media and online activism platforms to advance the goals of tobacco control, and provide an important counter to the tobacco industry. Each of these campaigns contributed significantly to generating awareness of, and momentum against, tobacco sponsorship of music events in Indonesia. While the outcome in each of these cases varied, each campaign generated media coverage and reached people who may not otherwise be concerned about tobacco sponsorship, but who are engaged with social issues.

Online reactions to the campaigns reflected a range of responses, including outrage that artists would agree to be involved in tobacco promotion; agreement that the issue is problematic, but targeting the artists is unfair, as it is the promoters and band management who make sponsorship decisions; belief that tobacco is a legal product and, therefore, protesting its promotion is unjustified; and that it is an issue which should be left to Indonesia to resolve. These reactions offered a chance to engage directly with critics and argue in defence of the campaigns, in particular, with the fan base of artists in their home countries, as well as young fans in Indonesia. Using online activism in this way is also an inexpensive way to support tobacco control advocates in low and middle-income countries, in line with the goals of Article 22 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). It also aligns with one of the strategic priorities of the Framework Convention Alliance to ‘mobilise and strengthen the regional and local civil society capacity in support of FCTC’.20

Social media are rapidly evolving, requiring a responsive and flexible approach when used for campaigning. Uniquely, Twitter offers a direct means of communication with hard-to-reach targets, such as celebrities, creating access opportunities that were previously difficult to imagine. Another advantage of social media is that it is possible to track how information is being shared, and then monitor audience reaction. As mentioned above, we used Tweetreach to track and analyse the effect of our social media advocacy. The open accessibility of Tweetreach and Twitter means that it is possible to see who has engaged with information and their responses, allowing campaign information and strategies to be amended and tailored in real time (figure 3).

Figure 3

Screen shot of TweetReach analysis showing campaign-related tweets reaching approximately 183, 000 people. This figure is only reproduced in colour in the online version.

For advocacy-based organisations, provides an ideal platform to build and increase an advocacy profile. Engaging signatories through a cause-oriented petition generates a database of interested supporters and the opportunity to network with similar organisations. It also integrates well with other forms of social media, and amplifies advocacy reach through the large number of Change supporters and integrated news service. Most importantly, it provides transparent evidence of campaign support.

We found that successfully mobilising our Facebook members required a variety of campaign approaches. While the initial campaign targeting Kelly Clarkson through Facebook generated a significant response, repeatedly asking people to post to Facebook pages for a similar issue generated less response each time, likely resulting from campaign fatigue. However, using the online petition in subsequent campaigns attracted new levels of support and widened our supporter base. Organisations can integrate tools, such as Change, into their toolbox, and have the option of bringing together an action network which can engage in specific strategies. For example, supporters could be asked to participate in ‘Twitter rallies’—asking supporters to tweet a target at a specific time—as a way to generate momentum. Given the responsiveness of some of the celebrities in our case studies to a relatively small number of tweets, such coordinated Twitter action would be a worthwhile strategy to test.

Although the tools and applications used in these case studies are either free or of very low cost, social media strategies do need adequate dedicated personnel to be effective. Generating engagement with our Facebook TAPS 2.0 page required minimal resourcing to acknowledge posts and provide comments and responses. Regular posting of new content by the authors was the most important strategy for maintaining and increasing engagement, and requires marginal additional effort which can easily be integrated into existing roles for most organisations.


Social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, are important avenues for monitoring tobacco industry activity and promoting collaboration among organisations with an interest in tobacco control. Online activism sites, such as present opportunities for tobacco control. Integrating social media strategies into the routine strategies of tobacco control organisations is increasingly important.

What this paper adds

  • Social media offer many opportunities for low-cost advocacy to advance tobacco control. This paper documents a range of campaign strategies using Facebook, Twitter and the online petition website, and provides practical tips and lessons for effectively using social media.


This work was funded by grant 570869, The National Health and Medical Research Council, Australia on the use of web 2.0 internet sites to undermine tobacco advertising bans and to mobilise tobacco control advocates.


Supplementary materials

  • Supplementary Data

    This web only file has been produced by the BMJ Publishing Group from an electronic file supplied by the author(s) and has not been edited for content.

    Files in this Data Supplement:


  • Contributors All authors contributed to the conception and design of the study. MH was responsible for data collection and analysis. All authors were jointly responsible for preparing the manuscript and approval of the final version submitted for publication.

  • Funding The National Health and Medical Research Council, Australia.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data sharing statement No additional data available.

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