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Philip Morris International Urged to End Global Ad Campaign for Marlboro Cigarettes that Has Been Found to Target Youth

New Report Details How “Be Marlboro” Campaign Uses Images and Themes that Appeal to Youth
March 12, 2014

WASHINGTON, DC — A coalition of international public health organizations today called on Philip Morris International (PMI) to end a global marketing campaign for its best-selling Marlboro cigarettes that has been found by a German court to target youth and has generated similar complaints in other countries. The organizations issued a new report detailing how the 'Be Marlboro' campaign, which has spread to more than 50 countries, uses themes and images that appeal to youth.

The report, titled 'You're the Target,' was issued by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Alliance for the Control of Tobacco Use Brazil, Corporate Accountability International, Framework Convention Alliance, InterAmerican Heart Foundation and Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance.

PMI’s global marketing campaign, launched in Germany in 2011, links smoking Marlboro with risk-taking, independence, exploration, rebellion against authority and freedom — all attributes that are highly attractive to youth — and delivers the message 'Don’t Be a Maybe. Be Marlboro.' It features images of attractive young people partying, falling in love, playing music and engaging in adventure sports such as snowboarding and surfing. The campaign tells young audiences that 'Maybe never fell in love' or 'A maybe is not invited' and they should define themselves by choosing to 'Be Marlboro.'

In October 2013, a German court banned the 'Be Marlboro' campaign, finding that it encouraged children as young as 14 to smoke in violation of Germany's tobacco advertising law and that “the advertising specifically targets risk-taking, rebellious youths” (PMI has indicated it will challenge the ruling, but the court's ban remains in place). Complaints that the campaign targets youth and violates advertising regulations have also been filed in Brazil, Colombia and Switzerland.

The report calls on PMI to immediately end the 'Be Marlboro' campaign. It also calls on governments to enact comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship in accordance with the international tobacco control treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Currently, 177 countries are party to the treaty.

PMI, the world's largest non-governmental tobacco company, is based in the United States.

Despite the findings of the German court, PMI continues to roll-out the 'Be Marlboro' campaign globally, including in many low- and middle-income countries struggling with high smoking rates and related death and disease. These include Argentina, Brazil, China, Colombia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Ukraine.

'Philip Morris International claims it doesn’t market to kids, but the evidence in this report shows otherwise. Just like the Marlboro Man campaign, the new 'Be Marlboro' campaign uses themes and images that are sure to appeal to kids around the world and lure them into a deadly addiction,' said Matthew L. Myers, President of the U.S.-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. 'We need urgent action to stop this campaign before it further fuels the global tobacco epidemic. If Philip Morris is serious about not marketing to kids, it should immediately end this campaign. Governments should also stop this campaign by enacting and enforcing comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.'

Other findings in the new report include:

  • The 'Be Marlboro' campaign has used numerous marketing tactics that are effective at reaching youth and have been banned in many countries. These include advertising on billboards, bus stops and outside retail stores. Other marketing tactics have included music event sponsorships; beach tours in Tunisia and Latin America where contests, concerts and parties are used to entice young people to provide consumer information; online promotional videos that feature young, attractive people partying and going on adventures, including a hip-hop themed party in Saudi Arabia; and interactive promotional booths at shopping malls in Ukraine that feature large cigarette displays and promotional videos.
  • PMI has a long history of engaging in marketing that targets kids, as demonstrated by internal tobacco industry documents that have become public as a result of litigation and the conclusions of a U.S. federal judge. In 2006, U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler issued a landmark verdict that major U.S. cigarette manufacturers — including Altria/Philip Morris Cos., then the parent company of Philip Morris International — had engaged in a decades-long fraud to deceive the public about the health risks of smoking and their marketing to kids. Judge Kessler concluded, 'Defendants used their knowledge of young people to create highly sophisticated and appealing marketing campaigns targeted to lure them into starting smoking and later becoming nicotine addicts.'
  • The themes and imagery in the 'Be Marlboro' campaign track the recommendations of previous Philip Morris internal research documents on why young people smoke. One key study conducted by Philip Morris in the 1990s linked smoking with adult initiation rituals, risk-taking, bonding with peers and the need for youth to feel like they belong to a group and can partake in 'adult activity.' The 'Be Marlboro' campaign was created by Leo Burnett, the same advertising firm responsible for the Marlboro Man campaign that made Marlboro the world’s best-selling cigarette brand and a widely-recognized brand among youth worldwide.
  • The 'Be Marlboro' campaign appears to violate PMI’s marketing standards published on its website, which state, 'We do not market to children or use images or content that might appeal to minors.'

Tobacco companies spend billions of dollars annually to promote their deadly tobacco products and have targeted low- and middle-income countries where 80 percent of the world's smokers live. Many of these countries have weak tobacco control laws, allowing tobacco companies to aggressively market their products and target children. Philip Morris International alone spent US $7 billion on marketing and related expenses in 2012.

Tobacco use — the world's leading cause of preventable death — kills nearly six million people worldwide each year and is projected to kill one billion people this century if current trends continue. Every day, 80,000 to 100,000 young people around the world become addicted to tobacco. Without urgent action by governments around the world, more than 250 million children and young people alive today will die from tobacco-related diseases.


View the report and related materials.

Additional Media Contacts:

  • Alliance for the Control of Tobacco Use Brazil: Anna Monteiro, +21 3 311 5640
  • Corporate Accountability International: Jesse Bragg, +1 617 695 2525
  • Framework Convention Alliance: Marty Logan, +1 647 631 6685
  • InterAmerican Heart Foundation: Debora Mazzola, +54 9 11 3682 7511
  • Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance: Joy Alampay, +63 9 17 532 6749