27 March 2022
By: Colman M. Herman Source: Commonwealth
‘Sponsored content’ series promotes smoke-free tobacco products
THE BOSTON GLOBE is facing a growing chorus of criticism from public health advocates and media critics for working with Philip Morris to create and publish stories featuring interviews with prominent scientists, many of whom say they were never told the true purpose of the interviews – for inclusion in Philip Morris ads.
A coalition of six leading public health organizations sent a letter last month to Globe owner and publisher John Henry in an effort to persuade him to get rid of the tobacco ads. He did not respond.
To be sure, the Philip Morris ads in the Globe today are nothing like the tobacco ads of the past. Gone are the Marlboro man and his ilk. Instead, the tobacco ads in the Globe nowadays take the form of what’s known as “sponsored content” articles, a type of advertising that looks similar to Globe news stories with headlines, bylines, and even the same font the paper uses. The ads run under the heading “From our Partners” on the Globe’s website.
Philip Morris officials have turned to sponsored content as a forum to counter what they characterize as the “misinformation” being spread by public health advocates who assert that the company’s smoke-free tobacco products are no safer than regular cigarettes. What makes the issue so critical for Philip Morris is that the company is staking its financial future on these products as the sale of cigarettes is steadily declining.
The Globe department that worked with Philip Morris to develop the sponsored content ads is called the BGBrandLab. The department promises to “add value to your brand by aligning it with the right message and encouraging positive associations and heightened brand loyalty.” About 75 companies are listed as Globe clients (see here and here); absent from the list is Philip Morris.
From 2020 to 2022, there have been 43 Philip Morris sponsored content articles and one sponsored content video published on the Globe website. Some of the articles specifically address the safety of the Philip Morris smoke-free products, but many focus on other topics, including the importance of science.
The BGBrandLab puts a disclaimer in tiny print at the end of each Philip Morris article that states the following or a variation: “This content was produced by Boston Globe Media’s BG BrandLab and paid for by the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.” At the top of each article is a statement in small print that says: “This content is sponsored by Philip Morris International,” with a link to the company’s website.
Nearly 100 individuals, including university professors, industry scientists, and CEOs have been interviewed for the Philip Morris sponsored content series in the Globe. Many say they were not aware that their comments were being included in an article sponsored by Philip Morris.
“I had no idea these stories were sponsored by Philip Morris and am appalled,” said MIT Sloan School of Management professor Sinan Aral in an email regarding the two sponsored content articles for which he was interviewed. “The ‘reporter’ made no mention of that when requesting the interview. . . . I was not happy.”
Aral was sufficiently troubled by the situation that he brought it to the attention of media officials at Sloan. “They called the Globe and had my participation removed,” he said.
Sloan officials also got the separate interview of another one of their professors, David Rand, excised from the Philip Morris sponsored content article for which he was interviewed.
“Looking back through my emails, I see that the writer introduced himself as a ‘freelance journalist working with the Boston Globe’ on ‘a series of articles for the Globe’s sponsored content section,’” Rand said in an email. “He didn’t say it was for Philip Morris. I just assumed that it was for the Boston Globe and that was good enough for me. But now that I understand what it was all about, I certainly would not participate if I had it to do over. I really think it’s inappropriate that the Globe is doing something like this. . . . It’s ridiculous!”
Two physicians from Massachusetts General Hospital also said they were never told by the Globe that they were being interviewed for Philip Morris sponsored content articles instead of Globe news stories. The doctors were Neha Chaudhary, a child psychiatrist, and Mark Poznansky, MGH’s director of vaccine and immunotherapy and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
“Both physicians said they had assumed the person conducting the interview was a Globe reporter and that the information would be used in a newspaper article,” MGH said in a prepared statement. “Neither physician was aware at the time of the request that the interviews were in conjunction with a sponsored advertising effort.”
Peter Mitchell, an environmental analyst with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, said he had no idea that his interview was for a Philip Morris series called “Thank you, Scientists.”
Professors from two Ivy League schools, who were also interviewed for the “Thank you, Scientists” series, were not happy when they found out about the sponsored content arrangement between Philip Morris and the Globe.
“I answered a few questions in response to a media inquiry over an email,” said Zaneta Thayer, associate professor of anthropology at Dartmouth. “I didn’t fully understand what the interview was for but, since it was affiliated with the Boston Globe, I assumed it was above board. I did not intend to support a tobacco company with my unpaid interview, so I have asked for the story to be removed.” It has been removed.
“The part about Phillip Morris sponsoring the interview was opaque to me until just now,” said physician Suzanne de la Monte, professor of pathology and neurosurgery at the Alpert Medical School at Brown University. “I’m not sure how the connection breezed past my brain, but it did. . . . What else can I say? I am definitely opposed to supporting the tobacco industry.”
Scientists from Boston University, Yale University, UMass Amherst, the University of Connecticut, the University of New Hampshire, and University of Vermont also participated in the “Thank You, Scientists” series. Most did not respond to questions about their presence in the Philip Morris sponsored content, but the BU press office issued a statement indicating the school was pleased.
“We’re not concerned that our faculty members were featured in [a series] thanking them for their research contributions that will improve the world we live in and lives of the people in it,” the statement said.
Dan Kennedy, a media critic and professor of journalism at Northeastern University, said he is concerned about the apparent lack of disclosure to those interviewed. “If the individuals that Philip Morris hired to write those ads failed to make full disclosure to the scientists they interviewed, then the Globe was participating in a fraud even though they probably didn’t realize what was going on.” (Kennedy was the first to report on the Globe resuming taking ads from tobacco companies.)
The sponsored content articles in the Globe included five op-ed-like pieces written by Philip Morris officials plus a link to four similar articles on the company’s website. In the articles, Philip Morris officials say their smoke-free tobacco products, which are sold under the brand name IQOS, are safer because the tobacco is heated, not burned, so no smoke containing harmful chemicals is produced.
Public health advocates sharply disagree, pointing to an official statement issued by the Food and Drug Administration, which has authorized the marketing of IQOS but has not given the product its approval. “It is important to note that these products are not safe, so people, especially young people, who do not currently use tobacco products should not start using them or any other tobacco product,” the FDA said.
Company officials say their products are not getting a fair shake in the court of public opinion, in the nation’s legislatures, and with regulatory agencies.
“As we push to deliver a smoke-free future — one where we no longer sell cigarettes in the international markets where our company operates — we face obstruction of real progress due to confusion, misinformation, and those who simply lump all tobacco products and companies together,” Moira Gilchrist, vice president of strategic and scientific communications for Philip Morris, said in one of the articles.
Daniel Dorado, tobacco campaign director for an organization called Corporate Accountability, said the Philip Morris series of sponsored content articles mix opinion and factual content deliberately.
“This is what you do when you build fortunes trafficking in self-serving corporate junk science for decades,” he said. “You do whatever you can to associate your brand with science. With scientific innovation. With scientific institutions. With health and wellness. With social causes. And amid the impressionist halo you’ve created for your cigarette company, you strategically intersperse your own propaganda in the hope that it will be read and thought to be as credible as any other story in the same series of articles. This is what you do to give the appearance of transformation, though your primary business remains the same and as deadly as ever.”
Robert Jackler, a physician and the principal investigator for the Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising project, sees the “Thank you, Scientist’ series as a sleight of hand.
“The scientists interviewed for the ‘Thank you, Scientists’ segment as well as for the other segments in the sponsored content series were displayed by Philip Morris as though they were trophies endorsing the Philip Morris brand,” said Jackler. “My assumption is they didn’t really understand how they were actually victims being manipulated by a big tobacco company whose ultimate goal with these articles is to sustain and expand their revenue. They don’t realize that they’re part of the nefarious propaganda campaign.”
Richard Daynard, professor of law at Northeastern University and president of the Public Health Advocacy Institute, thinks the Globe turned a blind eye here. “The Globe certainly should know what’s going on here, though Philip Morris is paying them good money to keep their gaze averted.”
Top Globe officials, including Henry (owner and publisher), Linda Pizzuti Henry (CEO), and Kazi Ahemn (vice president, integrated marketing) did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Philip Morris declined a request for an interview and instead issued a prepared statement saying its goal is to convert cigarette smokers to “scientifically substantiated” smoke-free products. “Our aim is to inform key opinion leaders of our mission to achieve a science-based smoke-free future and generate an open debate about how best to end smoking,” the statement said. “Unfortunately, some well-funded lobbying groups … appear to be obsessed with stifling any speech that does not align with their mission.”
Two decades ago, the Boston Globe proclaimed that there would be no more tobacco advertising in the paper. “Even though tobacco remains legal, its effect on public health is clear,” Globe publisher Richard Gilman proclaimed in a statement in 1999. “We can no longer justify carrying advertisements that promote a product when the harm it causes is so evident.”
Like the Globe, many newspapers that once banned tobacco advertising, including the New York Times and Washington Post, are now running sponsored content from Philip Morris. But the Globe appears to run more of the Philip Morris articles than other publications.
Howard Koh, a professor of public health practice at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and a former commissioner of public health in Massachusetts, is troubled by the Globe’s decision to run Philip Morris sponsored content.
“The Globe has always been on the forefront of public health, which I’ve always respected,” Koh said. “So when it was brought to my attention that they’re now accepting paid advertisements from Philip Morris, I was dumbfounded. Basically, they are going backwards. The Globe is participating in Philip Morris’s effort to get away with image reinvention.”
At the end of February, a coalition of six public health organizations — the Truth Initiative, the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, and Parents Against Vaping — sent a letter to Globe publisher John Henry asking him to stop running the Philip Morris ads.
“We are concerned that the tobacco industry’s advertising could advance the very objectives that your publication sought to prevent when it previously refused tobacco advertising that promoted the use of addictive products and the recruitment of new users most of whom are youth and young adults,” the letter said.