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Facebook prepares to use Big Tobacco's 1 weird trick

·2 min read
A pack of Facebook.
A pack of Facebook. Illustrated | Alamy Stock Photo, Getty Images, iStock

Is Facebook the second coming of Big Tobacco? Critics of the social media company have increasingly argued it looks a lot like the cigarette manufacturers of an earlier era — powerful corporations that profited from addictive products which harmed their consumers. "Facebook is just like Big Tobacco," Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said during a recent hearing, "pushing a product that they know is harmful to the health of young people, pushing it to them early, all so Facebook can make money."

Whether or not that's true, it does seem Mark Zuckerberg is about to borrow a trick from Big Tobacco: He's about to rebrand.

The Verge reports Zuckerberg is looking to rename the company — which includes the namesake Facebook app as well as Instagram and WhatsApp — to signal its broader metaverse-building ambitions. But it also wouldn't hurt to put some distance between the company and its flagship venture, which has been tarnished by whistleblower accusations that Facebook put profits over people and probably endangered American democracy in the process. The move "is meant to signal the tech giant's ambition to be known for more than social media and all the ills that entails," according to the report.

The renaming is reminiscent of tobacco giant Philip Morris and its early aughts rebranding to Altria. That change was made in part because the company really did have a broad portfolio of non-tobacco products — including Kraft Foods and a stake in SABMiller, then the world's second-largest brewer — but University of California researchers found executives were also trying to make their controversial corporation less of a target for critics. "Philip Morris executives thought a name change would insulate the larger corporation and its other operating companies from the political pressures on tobacco," the researchers wrote in 2003.

Nearly two decades later, it's difficult to believe the rebranding had much substantive effect. Kraft was spun off in 2007, and these days Altria is a big investor in cannabis and e-cigarettes, with some resulting regulatory complications. Visit Altria's website and you're greeted with the words "Moving Beyond Smoking." New name, same old problems.

That might be a warning to Zuckerberg as he contemplates Facebook's rebranding. If you change your name without actually changing what you do, there might be some kind of short-term boost — or maybe everybody will treat it as a joke. Altria is still, at its core, Phillip Morris. And Facebook will probably always be Facebook.

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