Expertly posing for Instagram snaps, a parade of young and handsome DJs, models and socialites line up to endorse Velo, a brand of flavored nicotine sachets made by British American Tobacco (BAT).
The 26 social media influencers alone have 2.2 million subscribers and a rather young audience, which means they’re hard to reach through traditional advertising channels.
Holding cans of Velo to camera, DJ GW Harrison told his 35,000 subscribers, “My favorite has to be the ruby berry flavor. What is your?”
MC and rapper Bru-C aka Josh Bruce hails’ technology that glows in the dark ‘to his audience of 156,000, while fellow DJ Jess Bays exclaims,’ The product is so cool , especially for clubs!
Former Made in Chelsea star Alex Mytton posted Velo-themed videos to his 391,000 subscribers, while racing driver Archie Hamilton, with 207,000 subscribers, is featured in an esports-themed YouTube series , in association with the British McLaren racing team.
This new generation of nicotine influencers – you might call them nicotine influencers – are soldiers on the British front in a marketing war that London-based British American Tobacco has long been waging on foreign soil.
Earlier this year, an analysis by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that BAT had bet around £ 1 billion to harness the popularity of influencers on TikTok, Instagram and Facebook to reach young people in countries like Pakistan, Sweden and Spain.
Now BAT is deploying the same tactics to conquer British hearts and minds.
Velo, the product at the heart of the Instagram promotion, is a small flavored pouch, placed between the lip and the gum, which releases a dose of nicotine to satisfy cravings.
According to documents posted on the websites of several major retailers, “you will feel a momentary tingling sensation, this is how you will know the nicotine is being released and is working for you.”
BAT markets Velo as a way to “move on” – an alternative to cigarettes. Yet none of BAT’s nico-influencer army posts mention quitting smoking.
Indeed, reviews suggest that the products are aimed as much at recruiting new customers, pointing to BAT’s own analysis, which suggests that half of the sachet market comes from people who had not previously used nicotine.
In a letter to the CEOs of Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, a coalition of more than 100 health and anti-tobacco groups around the world is demanding an end to promoting addictive products on social media.
They refer to a report by the American Surgeon General, which found that nicotine consumption could have a negative impact on adolescent brain development and the prenatal period. The same report found “substantial evidence” that nicotine use in adolescence may increase the likelihood of nicotine addiction in adulthood.
“The real intent of these ads is pretty clear: to keep customers addicted to nicotine and to get kids to try nicotine products,” said Caroline Renzulli of the Tobacco Free Kids Campaign. “Tobacco companies don’t care about your health. In fact, they don’t even care what addicting product you use because as long as they can keep you using one, they have a customer for life.
A BAT spokesperson said, “Our products are for adults only and we believe young people should never use tobacco or nicotine products. Our marketing is carried out responsibly, in strict accordance with our International Marketing Principles, Youth Access Prevention Guidelines, legislation and social media platform policies.
“Our social media accounts are age-restricted, so they are only visible to adult users, for example in the UK market, where these users have confirmed they are 18 and over, and all of our Messages display the words “18+” and “For adult nicotine users only”.
Meta, owner of Facebook and Instagram, is investigating whether the posts comply with its guidelines, which ban advertising of nicotine products. He has deleted several since he was contacted by the Guardian.
Velo’s Instagram campaigns are aimed at over 18s and the posts make it clear. But verifying the age of Instagram users is difficult, and according to a report by social media analytics firm Klear, 35% of those posts’ audiences are under 24.
British American Tobacco is far from alone in harnessing the power of social media to promote its products. Swedish Match, a nicotine sachet company that doesn’t sell cigarettes, also appears to be targeting the UK with its brand, Zyn.
Its glossy Facebook page makes it clear that the sachets are only intended for “existing smokers and vapers in the UK”, although it also states that they are “not a smoking cessation product”.
The Facebook campaign appears to support the idea that nicotine packets can be used with tobacco, with the slogan: “Can’t you smoke? Can’t vape? Can Zyn.
“We regularly review consumer engagement on social media to make sure we’re reaching the right audience,” a Zyn spokesperson said. “Facebook does not receive any payment for clicks to ZYN.com.”
A spokesperson for JIT said influencers were screened to ensure they were not particularly appealing to minors and that at least 75% of their audience was over 18.
In some cases, tobacco products are openly marketed on social media. Ismod UK Ltd, which sells electronic tobacco heating devices, tapped young fashion influencers on Instagram for their marketing. Contributors in the UK include Furkan Usenmez, a Devon-based menswear influencer with over 9,800 followers, and Chloe Bain, a Swindon model with 140,000 followers, as well as model Sofia Spokes, who has 145 000 subscribers.
In the caption of his sponsored post, Bain, 27, offers a discount code that gives shoppers up to 20% off.
Advertising Standards Authority regulations prohibit those under the age of 25 from “playing a significant role” in the undisclosed advertising of alternatives to cigarettes. Spokes claims in his Instagram bio to be 20 years old. In posts labeled as Ismod commercials, Bain and Spokes are shown holding the tobacco heater in their underwear.
Samer Jalloul, Managing Director of Ismod, said: “Ms. Spokes’ account is managed by a third party internationally. However, we have taken the appropriate steps to rectify the situation.
“We have never paid @sofiaaspokes for advertising. We always verify that [product reviewers] are smokers and adults. When we first checked we saw she was over 18, but didn’t realize she was under 25.
“Inadvertently approving branded content to show a ‘paid partnership with’ was a mistake on the part of a junior social media associate. We have now rectified that and ensured that it is removed and not tagged accordingly. ”
None of the influencers contacted by the Guardian responded.