Purpose Influencers market products for tobacco companies on social media. This is the first study to systematically examine leading cigar brands’ use of influencers on their brand Instagram pages.
Methods We identified 24 leading cigar brands, using July 2017–June 2018 US retail data. We identified cigar brands that had official appearing Instagram pages, with at least one influencer in the past 20 posts. We coded characteristics of the past three posts from each of five brand pages that contained influencers, such as setting and what the influencer was doing. Finally, we described influencer characteristics.
Results Approximately one-third of the 24 brands had official Instagram accounts with at least one influencer in the past 20 posts. We identified 28 influencers, typically people of colour from the hip-hop music industry, some with millions of followers. Influencers included Bella Thorne (@bellathorne), Shaquille O’Neal (@shaq) and T.I. (@troubleman31). Brands’ posts that contained influencers showed the influencer using/holding a product, wearing branded merchandise or appearing in photos with a brand watermark. Three brands’ pages posted sponsored event photos (ie, concerts and events using branded backgrounds).
Discussion Cigar brands commonly use influencers to market their products on brand Instagram pages. Results are consistent with previous findings that cigar companies’ marketing may target younger African Americans and highlight the potential utility of education campaigns that similarly engage influencers.
- tobacco industry
- advertising and promotion
- surveillance and monitoring
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Tobacco brands use social media to market their products1–3 and this marketing may target youth4 and specific demographic groups (eg, racial/ethnic minority groups including African American and Latin(x)).3 Youth exposure to online marketing, including social media marketing, is associated with tobacco use.5 6 Although some research has characterised tobacco brand-sponsored online content (eg, on Instagram),2 7–11 few studies have focused on the most commonly used combustible product by African American youth: cigars.12 13 Further, no studies have described how cigar brands use influencers, individuals followed by a sizeable audience, in social media marketing.14 Influencers contract with brands directly, or through marketing firms. Through influencer marketing, brands can amplify their reach, credibility and engagement among influencers’ followers.15 This study describes how cigars are marketed using influencers on cigar brands’ Instagram pages.
We selected Instagram to study because: (1) it is a popular social media platform, used by 72% of teens in 201816 17 and (2) it was used by 15 leading cigar brands in 2019.2 Additionally, although generally not required, in 2019, no cigar brand Instagram pages used tools to prevent youth from viewing their content.2 Research on tobacco marketing on Instagram has generally focused on posts identified by tobacco-related hashtag searches, including both brand-generated and user-generated posts.7 9 18–20 These studies described general conversations about tobacco and identified tobacco promotion via tobacco retail employees 8(eg, brand-sponsored influencers).21 22 Inconsistent with Federal Trade Commision guidance,23 many influencers do not use methods to make it clear they have a ‘material connection’ with the brand, such as including hashtags (eg, #ad, #sponsored).24 25 Thus, these posts can be difficult to search for and study.22 While research has generally described Instagram marketing on tobacco brand pages and on influencers’ pages,2 7–9 11 18 23 24 26 27 there is a lack of research on how tobacco companies use influencers. The current study helps to fill this gap by assessing influencer marketing on cigar brand Instagram pages.
We identified 11 unique leading cigar brands from a list of the top 20 cigar brands based on July 2017–June 2018 dollar sales from Nielsen Scantrack data for total US convenience stores and all outlets combined. We found 13 additional, unique brands using Euromonitor’s list of 2017 US market leaders based on retail volume.28
To identify brand pages that feature influencers (early June 2019), we searched for official Instagram pages for the 24 leading cigar brands (indicated by the page title including ‘official,’ having links to the brand’s website, content solely marketing one brand or included Instagram’s ‘verified’ badge) and assessed pages for presence of an influencer (ie, an individual with an account that has over 1 000 followers)12 either explicitly tagged (eg, @dannybayshore) or named in the caption or comments, within the past 20 posts. We recorded the number of followers and number of unique influencers for each cigar brand account. In late June 2019, we coded the three most recent posts of each brands’ Instagram account that contained influencers. We coded each post for: whether it took place at a sponsored event, club, bar or music venue; whether an influencer was holding a pack of the cigars, holding the cigar only or holding a lit cigar; whether the influencer was wearing branded merchandise; whether the cigar brand logo was watermarked on the post and the number of influencers within a post. We also recorded posts’ hashtags and a general description of the post. The characteristics of pages that we coded may be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration for certain product categories. We dual coded data and had an average of 87% agreement across all features coded (excluding the three Dutch Masters’ posts, which had disappeared when the second coder began coding). Coders resolved disagreements through discussion. In August/September 2019, we gathered descriptive information about each influencer: number of followers, profession (ie, musician, artist, actor/actress or other, from Instagram bio or Wikipedia) and age (from Wikipedia).
Identifying brands using influencers
Seven of the 24 leading brands (29%) had official Instagram accounts with at least one influencer in the past 20 posts (Swisher Sweets, Backwoods, Dutch Masters, Djarum, Phillies, Davidoff and Romeo y Julieta). We assessed influencer post characteristics on five of the seven brand pages, because we began coding 14 days after identifying the brand pages, and two of the brand pages no longer included influencers within the past 20 posts and thus were not coded further (Djarum and Romeo y Julieta). For each remaining brand, 2–13 of the past 20 posts included influencers: Backwoods (13), Swisher Sweets (10), Dutch Masters (8), Phillies (5) and Davidoff (2). The number of unique influencers appearing in posts ranged from 3 to 13: Backwoods (13), Swisher Sweets (6), Davidoff (4), Dutch Masters (3) and Phillies (3). Brand page followers were (as of 10 September 2019): Backwoods (457 642), Swisher Sweets (278 325), Dutch Masters (96 210), Davidoff (77 879) and Phillies (6 666).
Characteristics of influencer posts on brand pages
We examined the three most recent posts that contained influencers for each of the five cigar brand pages and found:
Three brand pages contained at least one post where the photo was taken at a brand sponsored event; for example, a Swisher Sweets branded outdoor party; a Backwoods concert named ‘The Smokehouse Social’ with Chicago Drill (a type of regional hip-hop) artist, Chief Keef.
Three brand pages had a post where the influencer was holding a cigar.
One brand had a post where the influencer was wearing brand merchandise.
One brand had at least one post where the brand logo was watermarked on the image.
Posts included candid shots of influencers, and influencers posing with the product.
There were up to seven influencers in a single post.
Most photos were of an influencer posing alone or with other influencers. Examples of posts include Shaquille O’Neal posing with female models; musicians performing at, or promoting, cigar brand-sponsored events (Chief Keef and Lute); cigar-branded nail art; Danny Bayshore, a suit-wearing fashion industry individual, smoking a cigar and holding a glass of whiskey.
All but one post had at least one hashtag. Hashtags often identified the brand (eg, #backwoods) and identified the city that the post mentioned (eg, #LosAngeles). Some hashtags included specific phrases (eg, #AlwaysTrue, #ShareYourCraft). Occasionally an influencer was included in a hashtag (eg, #Prodigy) instead of linked with ‘@’.
Table 1 displays the name of the 28 unique influencers, associated cigar brand, and their Instagram page characteristics.
Influencers had 1 265–21 564 981 followers, and their ages ranged from 22 to 47. Their occupations included hip-hop music industry professionals (eg, rappers/musicians, DJs, event promoters), visual artists (eg, nail technicians) and actors. Most influencers appeared to be people of colour. Some influencers simultaneously promoted their craft and the cigar brand (eg, Lute promoting a rap concert).
This study helps address a gap in previous research on how tobacco brands use social media by examining cigar brand use of social media influencers.1 2 Almost one-third of leading cigar brands used influencers in recent Instagram posts. Two influencers were under age 25. Most influencers were people of colour in the hip-hop music industry with large follower counts. Brands’ influencer posts often modelled cigar use behaviour or positioned cigars as a social activity (eg, using them at concerts). This aligns with previous research, which found that the tobacco industry targets African Americans.29–31 Further, findings are consistent with recent studies that found cigar brands feature up-and-coming hip-hop artists in promotions, such as Swisher Sweets’ ‘Artist Project’.20 32 Our finding that cigar companies use influencers from the hip-hop music industry highlights the potential effectiveness of similar types of influencers in public health campaigns. For example, Fresh Empire has used influencers as a method to deliver hip-hop influenced tobacco prevention messages.33 This technique of engaging relevant influencers to deliver messaging may help the reach and impact of public health education campaigns. Influencers may be effective because they represent ‘character appeals’,34 where youth’s perception of the ‘character’ (influencer) as similar and attractive may lead youth to believe that the character’s behaviour (using cigars) is normative. Future research could consider comparing engagement measures of brand posts with and without influencers to better understand influencer effectiveness in marketing.
Findings may not be generalisable, as this study represents a snapshot in time, we studied only five Instagram accounts and our measure of coder agreement did not account for chance. This study also captures the use of influencers promoting cigar products on brand-sponsored Instagram pages; it does not describe how influencers may promote cigar brands on their own accounts.
Influencer marketing is a common tactic taken by cigar brand Instagram pages. Posts often featured influencers’ modelling product use or positioned cigar use in socially normative contexts. Influencers were typically people of colour who worked in the hip-hop industry. Our findings describe marketing tactics and are consistent with previous literature finding cigar companies market to younger African Americans and highlight the potential utility of education campaigns that use influencers to reach the same audience. Findings may help explain why cigars are now the most commonly used combustible tobacco product by African American youth.12 13
What this paper adds
Past research has found that tobacco brands use social media to market their products to specific target demographic groups. Influencers, individuals followed by a sizeable audience, provide tobacco brands a unique avenue to increase their reach, credibility and engagement.
This is the first study that describes influencers featured on Instagram pages of leading brands of the most commonly used combustible tobacco product among African American youth: cigars.
We found that one-third of leading cigar brands used influencers in recent Instagram posts; most influencers had large follower counts (range: 1 265–21 564 981) and worked in the hip-hop music industry; influencers modelled cigar use in posts.
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Twitter @otg2014, @IcedHoffee
Contributors MN, EO, OG, and LH all contributed to the development of the manuscript. MN, EO, OG, and LH all contributed to the methods and results. MN and OG were the two coders of the qualitative data. MN, EO, OG, and LH contributed to the editing of the manuscript.
Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.
Competing interests None declared.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.