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The Marlboro website epitomises the industry's creative use of online platforms to engage consumers consistently over extended time periods. Most recently, the tagline for the Marlboro brand's website promises ‘Action. Adventure. Special Offers. Find it all at MARLBORO.COM.’1 As the tobacco industry faces expanded restrictions for marketing their products through more traditional media channels,2–4 companies have turned to the internet—which remains a space that is both less regulated and more difficult to regulate5—to engage consumers. As researchers have observed, viewers are likely to ‘spend far more time browsing and interacting with a pro-smoking website than viewing a static cigarette advertisement in a magazine.’6
Despite the gated nature of the Marlboro website, which requires visitors to register by indicating they are a Marlboro customer and by providing their full name, birthdate, an address that appears on their government-issued identification and the last four digits of their Social Security number (for age verification),1 the website draws over a million visitors each month.7 ,8 Users’ tobacco product and brand preferences are also required, allowing for ‘relationship marketing’—the use of personalised targeting to retain customers, enhance brand loyalty and encourage word-of-mouth advertising.9 Users are also invited to create their own ‘brand’ (a personalised logo which becomes their profile image) and offered coupons, which are likely to be tailored to product preferences.1
Other website features exemplify how the industry is using online participation as a powerful gateway to offline engagement and the development of consumer communities.10 Using the address provided during registration, the website automatically generates a list of bars nearby, noting when the Marlboro ‘Bar Team’ will be there with promotions; those that check in via mobile are promised additional deals. Users are also invited to join ‘Team Marlboro’ to help stop cigarette litter by entering to win an all-expenses-paid trip to work with conservationists to clean up the Verde River in Arizona. In another section of the website, users can enter daily for a chance to ‘Rock the Marlboro Ranch’ in Montana, an all-expenses-paid vacation complete with horseback riding, food and entertainment. Other website features such as ‘Capture the Unknown’ (where users submit photos that fit into a weekly theme) include regular updates and active discussion forums designed to create a sense of community and keep users coming back to the site.1
Ultimately, websites like Marlboro.com highlight the way the tobacco industry is successfully (1) marketing their products online in the face of restrictions within other marketing avenues and (2) using the internet to an extent as yet unmatched by tobacco control advocates. Tobacco company spending on advertising for company websites in recent years has risen steadily from $13.2 million in 2008 to $20.8 million in 2010.11 Tobacco brand websites enable companies to share video advertising content, long since prohibited on television, with their consumers and also serve as key avenues for relationship building (between brand and consumer as well as peer-to-peer),12 oftentimes mimicking social media sites in format and features. As technology improves, opportunities for engaging consumers online will only increase, and the ever-evolving nature of this space makes monitoring of tobacco industry marketing online extremely important. Additionally, with the industry's increasing use of brand websites, it is critical that the tobacco control community explore the feasibility and potential public health impact of regulating this important marketing channel.
Furthermore, close monitoring of industry online expenditures, websites and related platforms is imperative to better understand and learn from industry consumer strategies and capitalise upon the capacity of emerging communication platforms to advance tobacco control. The industry is using brand websites to reach consumers by taking advantage of the internet's unique ability to enable high levels of interactivity, multi-directional communication and meaningful engagement. The use of video games and sweepstakes to engage consumers, as well as discussion forums and support networks to form peer-to-peer relationships, are all examples of tools that have the potential to greatly improve public health if used more widely in the field of tobacco control.
Contributors All authors included on this paper fulfil the criteria of authorship. In addition, there is no one else who fulfils the criteria but has not been included as an author.
Competing interests None.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
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