Late last week news came out of London that agency Edition Worldwide, a subsidiary of Vice Media in the U.K., will be creating content for tobacco company Philip Morris. A Vice spokesperson confirmed with Co.Create that the Vice-owned agency is producing "white label content" for the client.
"White label" content is marketing speak for content produced by a third party that will be rebranded, which means the Philip Morris work won't feature any Vice branding, but both Vice Media's President International Richard Waterlow, and Matt Elek, Vice Media's CEO of Europe, Middle East and Africa, are listed as directors of Edition Worldwide.
Given Vice's expertise in reaching young audiences, through its wide variety of editorial and advertising content—from F*ck, That's Delicious to The Creators Project—it's obvious what Philip Morris is hoping for out of the partnership. More perplexing is why Vice would take the risk of damaging its reputation and image with such a business partnership, particularly since the media company first made its name in marketing through its work with the American Legacy Foundation's (now called Truth Initiative) anti-smoking Truth campaign.
A decade ago, a nascent Vice Films and director Eddy Moretti (now Vice Media Worldwide's chief creative officer), created the "whudafuxup" Truth campaign with agencies Arnold and Crispin Porter & Bogusky. That work significantly helped establish Vice's bonafides in both film production and brand work. The irony is not lost on Truth Initiative CEO Robin Koval.
"It's disappointing that an organization like Vice that has built its reputation through its ability to impact and influence youth has chosen to put all that talent and creativity to work for Big Tobacco," says Koval. "That we were a stepping stone in what has become an incredible success story—which they deserve tremendous credit for all the terrific work they've done—that may ultimately help Big Tobacco recruit the next generation of smokers is ironic and sad."
The Philip Morris work to be created by the Vice subsidiary will not air in the U.S. or U.K., due to strong advertising regulations on tobacco products in those countries. But it's a logical next step for the tobacco company, given the goals of its ongoing "Be Marlboro" campaign, aimed at getting the brand's "values" to better resonate with young people. Yep, the same one John Oliver absolutely eviscerated on Last Week Tonight back in February 2015.
While it's work for Truth undoubtedly help shrink the teen smoking rate in the U.S. from 23% just 15 years ago to 8% today, it still leaves plenty of international cool kids for tobacco companies to target, which is ironically where Vice Media's bureaus and brand recognition in more than 30 countries come in quite handy.
"Clearly, there's a reason why Philip Morris has probably worked very hard to develop that relationship with Vice Media," says Koval. "It just underscores what we all know, that Big Tobacco depends on recruiting the next generation of smokers among young people who aren't necessarily aware that they're making a decision that could seriously impact the rest of their lives with an addictive product that will kill one-third of the young people who start using it. It's disappointing that Vice would want to be a part of that."
Back in 2009, in a piece for Ad Age shortly after Vice launched its in-house brand agency Virtue, Spencer Baim (now Vice Media's chief strategic officer) told me the key to balancing audience trust and brand work was "looking for smart, creative ways to drive clients' business forward as we drive our own forward," Baim said at the time. "It all comes down to openness, transparency, and great content. When it's done right, it's embraced and accepted. It is a thin line and definitely part of the challenge, but it's exciting."
By leveraging its reach and reputation among young audiences in the service of Big Tobacco, the company has carved that line to a sliver, and to some, hacks it up completely. Former Arnold chief creative officer Pete Favat, now North American chief creative officer at Deutsch, who worked with Vice on the Truth campaign, says collaborating with Philip Morris hurts Vice's most valuable asset—it's credibility.
"Vice works harder than anyone to provide us with the absolute truth behind the amazing stories they uncover," says Favat. "Taking money from the world's biggest liars makes me not believe in them as pure storytellers."
Crispin Porter + Bogusky cofounder and former chief creative officer Alex Bogusky, also a creative partner with Vice on the Truth work, had a more pointed response. "Pathetic," Bogusky told me over Twitter. "They finally lived up to their name. Or down to it."
Vice Media did not respond to questions about the work, beyond confirming that the Vice-owned agency Edition Worldwide is producing white label content for Philip Morris.