Study finds smoking is prevalent in hip-hop music videos

by Kyle Mullins | 10/30/18 3:20am

With billions of collective views, hip-hop, R&B and rap music videos are incredibly popular on YouTube and other online video-streaming services. A recent study by Dartmouth and Johns Hopkins University researchers aimed to uncover how many of these videos depicted combustible or electronic marijuana or tobacco products.

Among the chief findings are that between 40 and 51 percent of popular hip-hop music videos contain “combustible use, electronic use, or smoke or vapor,” and that the appearance of branded products increased significantly between 2013 and 2017.

Kristin Knutzen, the study’s lead author and a research project coordinator at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, said she became interested in the topic after seeing “very obvious brand placement of a vape” in a hip-hop music video. Knutzen said she then found that the vape company had numerous partnerships with hip-hop artists listed on its website.

“Under new [Food and Drug Administration] regulation, vapes are considered a covered tobacco product and they are thus supposed to be regulated — and their marketing is supposed to be regulated — the same way as traditional tobacco products, such as cigarettes,” Knutzen said. “When we saw this, we thought, ‘I can’t think of any cigarette brands that are included in music videos, so is this sort of a loophole that the vape companies are exploiting?’”

The study’s methodology involved analyzing Billboard magazine’s weekly list of the top 50 Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs from 2013 to 2017, watching the music videos for 796 of the songs on YouTube, Vimeo, Title and other video sharing sites and coding them for combustible and electronic product usage or depiction.

“We also coded the videos for who is using the product — so is the main or featured artist who is more prominent using the product, or is it an extra in the video?” Knutzen said. “We also looked at popularity of the videos by number of views on YouTube, and we also looked at brand placement in the videos, which was the initial thing we were interested in.”

She noted that the study had to refer to it as “brand placement,” because “product placement” implies a monetary agreement between the companies involved.

“We cannot say for sure that the musical artist or the label was getting money to have this product in their video,” Knutzen said. “I am guessing that there’s some sort of equal exchange going on here, but for our purposes, we call it brand placement because we see the brand in the video, but we don’t know what other motives are behind that.”

According to the study, brand placement increased from zero percent of videos with combustible products in 2013 to 9.9 percent in 2017, and increased from 25 percent in 2013 to 87.5 percent in 2017 for videos with electronic products. Furthermore, according to the study, there was a positive correlation between the number of views a video has and the “prevalence of combustible or electronic product use or exhaled smoke or vapor.”

Knutzen noted the important distinction between correlation and causation, however.

“It’s not like because they have this in them they’re being viewed more, or because they’re viewed more they have them,” she said. “You can’t really decide what it is, but it was notable.”

According to Knutzen, hip-hop was chosen as the genre for the study because of its popularity — hip-hop is the leading music genre in the United States — as well as its diverse audience.

“Proportionally, it has more minority fans than other genres, and particularly racial and ethnic minorities have been targeted by big tobacco with very pointed marketing campaigns historically,” she said. “We were sort of concerned that this might be a novel avenue for them to access that market.”

Katelyn Zeser ’22 said she agreed that advertising in hip-hop music videos could have a disproportionate impact on certain groups.

“Tobacco companies target people with low socioeconomic status and hip-hop has roots in the lower socioeconomic side of society, so I think it’s a very effective and also morally wrong way to target people who are more vulnerable in terms of income and education,” Zeser said.

Knutzen added that thanks in part to regulation stemming from the Master Settlement Agreement, a legal accord governing the advertising of cigarettes, “there was not a single cigarette brand in any hip-hop music video, because clearly they know that this is not a type of media that they are allowed to use as advertising.”

The Master Settlement Agreement bars the five largest tobacco companies from directly or indirectly targeting youth with advertising in the United States, according to the Public Health Law Center.

“That being said, with the FDA recently covering nicotine products and vaporizers under covered tobacco products, they should theoretically be regulated and have their advertising regulated the same as traditional tobacco products,” Knutzen said. “Also, YouTube is owned by Google, and if you read Google’s policy, [it] claims that [it] doesn’t allow this type of advertising on [its] platforms.”

She suggested this could be an issue for state or federal regulators to take up, or parent companies could “crack down” to ensure these products are not being marketed to young people.

Martin Gojçaj ’22 said that he thought brand placement in music videos could help these companies market to young people.

“An artist that I like or listen to, I watch his videos and see him using this product and that turns me on to using that product myself,” Gojçaj said.

However, he added that social circles play a larger role in the promotion of tobacco and vape products, citing his own experience growing up in Albania.

“It was a big part of Albanian culture, so a lot of people smoked,” he said. “Even though growing up, I was staunchly opposed to it ... eventually I ended up smoking too.”

Tuck School of Business marketing professor Lauren Grewal, who specializes in identity-based consumption, wrote in an email statement that “hip-hop artists may be seen as an aspirational reference group for many consumers,” meaning that the artists demonstrate qualities that consumers may want to take on themselves.

Grewal wrote that “one way consumers express their identities is through the products they purchase and consume and they are accordingly attracted to products and brands that are positively linked to their identities.”

“Seeing an aspirational reference group member smoking, may make it look like something a consumer wants to do as well, to be like the person smoking in the video,” she wrote in her email.

Hanlin Wang ’21, on the other hand, downplayed the potential impact of music videos on consumption, but gave other examples of places where someone might come across advertising for smoking or vape products.

“I don’t really watch a lot of music videos, and a lot of movies today, I don’t think they really promote that, but I have seen it a lot on social media and meme pages and stuff,” Wang said.

Derek Bai ’21, who listens to hip-hop and rap, said that he sees combustible or electronic products sometimes in music videos, but dismissed the negative influence.

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“People hold guns all the time in music videos, and I’ve never had the urge to shoot guns because of it,” Bai said.