Background: The commercial potential of social media is utilized by tobacco manufacturers and vendors for tobacco promotion online. However, the prevalence and promotional strategies of pro-tobacco content in social media are still not widely understood.
Objective: The goal of this study was to reveal what is presented by the tobacco industry, and how it promotes itself, on social media sites.
Methods: The top 70 popular cigarette brands are divided into two groups according to their retail prices: group H (brands with high retail prices) and group L (brands with low retail prices). Three comprehensive searches were conducted on Facebook, Wikipedia, and YouTube respectively using the top 70 popular cigarette brands as keywords. We identified tobacco-related content including history and culture, product features, health warnings, home page of cigarette brands, and Web-based tobacco shops. Furthermore, we examined the promotional strategies utilized in social media.
Results: According to the data collected from March 3, 2014 to March 10, 2014, 43 of the 70 representative cigarette brands had created 238 Facebook fan pages, 46 cigarette brands were identified in Wikipedia, and there were over 120,000 pro-tobacco videos on YouTube, associated with 61 cigarette brands. The main content presented on the three social media websites differs significantly. Wikipedia focuses on history and culture (67%, 32/48; P<.001). Facebook mainly covers history and culture (37%, 16/43; P<.001) and major products (35%, 15/43), while YouTube focuses on the features of major tobacco products (79%, 48/61; P=.04) and information about Web-based shops (49%, 30/61; P=.004). Concerning the content presented by groups H and L, there is no significant difference between the two groups. With regard to the promotional strategies used, sales promotions exist extensively in social media. Sales promotion is more prevalent on YouTube than on the other two sites (64%, 39/61 vs 35%, 15/43; P=.004). Generally, the sale promotions of higher-cost brands in social media are more prevalent than those of lower-cost brands (55%, 16/29 vs 7%, 1/14; P<.001 for Facebook; 78%, 28/36 vs 44%, 11/25; P=.005 for YouTube).
Conclusions: The prevalence of cigarette brands in social media allows more pro-tobacco information to be accessed by online users. This dilemma indicates that corresponding regulations should be established to prevent tobacco promotion in social media.
Keywords: cigarette brands; promotional strategy; social media; tobacco control; tobacco promotion.