A website claiming to represent consumer advocacy by vapers is actually funded by a subsidiary of Imperial Tobacco. The site, called 95percent.org, has companion accounts on Facebook and Twitter, and has been soliciting testimonials from vapers since late April.
Fontem Ventures is owned by Imperial, and is the manufacturer of blu eCigs. They hired public relations firm Levick to create the website. Scheduled to launch Monday, the site was online briefly that evening, but was down as of Tuesday afternoon.
Recruiting vapers one at a time
The 95percent Twitter account has been tweeting individual vapers at least since April 22, asking them to direct message the account for information.
— 95 Percent (@95percentorg) April 27, 2016
That was sent to my Twitter account. I didn’t respond, but reviewing the direct messages sent to other vapers, we could find no information about the sponsor of the website or its funding. They also promoted a single web page that requested email addresses for future mailings, and also contained no information about the organization.
Advocacy or astroturf?
Vapers and advocates are concerned that the site will be viewed as an example of “astroturfing.” That means that rather than being a true grassroots effort created by vapers, it’s a manufactured one created by a business — so, astroturf because it’s fake grassroots activism. The tobacco industry has a history of sponsoring astroturf pro-smoking organizations.
This isn’t the first time a tobacco company has tried to engage vapers in an “advocacy” effort. Nu Mark, a subsidiary of Altria, and maker of the MarkTen brand of cigalikes, launched a site very similar to Fontem’s last year.
CASAA released a statement Tuesday about the website:
It has come to our attention that Levick—a PR firm hired by Fontem Ventures, a subsidiary of Imperial Tobacco and manufacturer of blu eCigs—has created a new website, 95percent dot org, ostensibly representing a “coalition of advocates for consumers.” It is not.
Consumers should be aware that if you provide a testimonial and/or a photo, or if you offer your contact information, that information is owned by Fontem and can apparently be used however they wish. From the “disclaimer” (which is buried in the fine print, so you need to look hard for it):
“By submitting any postings, comments, stories or other messages to 95Percent dot org, the commenter gives 95Percent dot org an irrevocable and perpetual license to the material and authorizes 95Percent dot org to publish the material in any media now known or hereafter developed, and to use, edit, modify, adapt, recast, distribute, display, perform, or transmit it in any way, as 95Percent dot org may determine in its sole discretion. By submitting your name, address, photo or other identifying data with a posting or other submission, you give 95percent dot org the right to publish that data, and to use that data for promotional or any other purpose.”
We have relatively little information about the project because we learned about it only yesterday. If this had been a genuine effort to build a consumer coalition (as opposed to PR and cheap advertising), the organizers would have reached out to CASAA, which at more than 140,000 members is the largest group of THR consumers and has a proven track record. They did not.
While we applaud industry efforts to provide truthful and accurate information, we think that this particular project misses the mark and will actually work against our interests as consumers. Creating a corporate-sponsored consumer advocacy organization is a form of “astroturf,” and it has a largely negative perception from the very people we are trying to persuade—the general public, legislators, and policymakers. It also diminishes the credibility and impact of genuine consumer organizations.
For the foregoing reasons, we are recommending that consumers not participate in the 95percent dot org effort at this time.