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10 Common Criticisms that Make Effective E-Cigarette Advertising Impossible

Marketing e-cigarettes is a controversial issue, to say the least. Cigarette advertising has been banned in the US since 1971, but now, a superficially similar product is being promoted on the airwaves around the world, as well as stretching out to non-traditional forms of advertising using the internet and social media.

For anti-smoking groups, the implication of e-cigarette marketing is invariably that it’s designed to attract youths and non-smokers into vaping. Why do they say that? Well, it’s a complicated issue, but their arguments strongly suggest that any marketing whatsoever for vaping products will be interpreted as targeting youth.

What would advertising look like if you couldn’t mention the core benefits of your products, use sex to sell, use discounts and promotions, position your product as aesthetically appealing, use celebrity endorsement or make it look glamorous? If the scrutiny placed on e-cigarette advertising continues – in the absence of a flat-out ban on all e-cigarette ads – it looks like we’re set to find out.

The (Possible) Problem

Before considering the virtually impossible requirements for producing an e-cigarette ad that doesn’t attract criticism and controversy, it’s important to acknowledge that there could genuinely be an issue here. If e-cigarettes were being marketed to youth and non-smokers, even a reduced-harm product could recruit more people to nicotine use than smoking ever would alone, and we could see an increase in young people (and adults) addicted to nicotine across the nation. While we support consumer choice, and the scientific evidence suggests that e-cigarettes are vastly safer than cigarettes, it’s clear that there could be a real issue with e-cigarette marketing. Vaping isn’t a habit non-smokers should be encouraged to take up, no matter how much of a benefit it likely is for smokers.

The Criticisms:

1 – Too Many Youths are “Exposed” to E-Cig Ads

Ideally, many groups want e-cig companies to advertise without kids so much as seeing it. The fact that researchers in the field use the term “exposure” to mean “a youth seeing an ad to buy e-juice or vaping product” tells you everything you need to know about their stance: youths seeing vaping ads are having their minds poisoned.

A study looking at youth exposure to e-cig advertising used Nielson data to estimate exposure to e-cigarette advertisements from early 2011 to late 2013. The researchers found a 256 percent increase in youth exposure to e-cigarette ads over the studied time period, with most of this being advertising of Blu products. However, the study showed that just under 53 percent of the advertising from Blu in the third quarter of 2013 aired overnight (between 1 and 7 am), with 14.8 percent airing late-night (between 11 pm and 1 am) and 21.6 percent airing in prime time (8 to 11 pm).

Airing ads overnight would seem like a pretty good strategy to minimize youth exposure: most youth would be asleep at 1 am, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that this wouldn’t reach children. However, the study points out that 8 percent of US youth watch programs overnight and 16 percent watch during the late night, as well as a quarter watching in prime time. So what time can you actually air e-cigarette ads without “exposing” youth? The answer, fairly obviously, is never.

Online advertising is much more widespread and even more difficult to keep children from seeing. If a teen or child wants to see imagery of somebody vaping, all it takes is opening Google and typing the word “e-cigarette” into the search box. Without parents imposing draconian limitations on their kids’ internet use, youth exposure to e-cig or tobacco e-juice marketing over the internet is absolutely impossible to avoid too.

2 – Don’t Show Vaping, It Looks Too Much Like Smoking

The authors of the study on youth e-cig ad “exposure” comment that, “Current advertising … depicts e-cigarettes with vapor that is indistinguishable from cigarette smoke.” Similarly, when a few e-cig ads were banned in the UK, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) argued that, “We considered that the manner in which the vapor was exhaled and the heightened focus on this action created a strong association with traditional tobacco smoking.”

The implication of these points is clear: vapor looks too much like smoke to be appropriate in ads. The question it raises is much more puzzling: how do you advertise a product if you can’t show it being used? It’s like having to advertise a car without showing it on the road, or having to advertise food but not being allowed to show somebody eating it.

3 – Don’t Talk About Quitting Smoking by Vaping

This is an obvious requirement – since claims that e-cigs can be used for smoking cessation are never allowed – but it’s clear from user surveys that most consumers vape in order to quit smoking or reduce their daily cigarette consumption. The obvious nature of the restriction doesn’t take away from the core point: if you’re selling e-cigarettes, you’re not allowed to mention the main reason people use your product as a selling-point. It’s like being asked to advertise low fat meals without being able to say that it can be used in an effort to lose weight. We might accept this until more evidence is available, but it’s still a crippling limitation.

4 – Don’t Use Sex to Sell

In response to a previously-existing ban on showing the act of vaping in ads, one UK-based manufacturer released an ad that featured no vaping whatsoever and didn’t even show an e-cigarette. The ads were overtly sexual, though, use oral-sex related wordplay (e.g. “put it in my mouth”) to elicit an association before revealing that the comments actually referenced an e-cigarette. This was fairly extreme, and the ASA banned the ads from appearing before 11 pm, because “We considered the sexually provocative presentation of the male and female characters in conjunction with a graphic description of oral sex was likely to cause serious and widespread offence.”

This isn’t an isolated complaint, of course, with the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids’ 7 Ways E-Cigarette Companies are Copying Big Tobacco’s Playbook pointing out a couple of ads that use sexually suggestive imagery to sell e-cigarettes. They’ve criticized a Blu ad specifically for this, too, which published in the Swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated, commenting, “The ad features the blu logo front and center on the skimpy bikini bottom of a shapely model. You can even zoom in on it on the online version of the ad.”

CDC Director Tom Frieden echoed such concerns, saying “Marketing is about sex, free samples, flavors, aggressive marketing promotion and distribution. It’s straight out of the playbook of what was done for cigarettes in the 1950s.”

The obvious, gaping hole in this argument is that “sex sells” is pretty much a cardinal rule of advertising. Sex is used to sell a massive array of products, including perfume, underwear, alcohol, jeans and other clothing, soda, food and many, many other products, with the practice dating back to the late 19th century (although these are admittedly tame by modern standards).

Whatever your opinion of the sexual depictions of (primarily) women in ads for various products, it’s clear that this doesn’t somehow become any worse if the company happens to be one selling e-cigarettes. To pretend that this is a unique advertising strategy designed to lure youth is patently absurd: it’s common enough to be called standard practice.

5 – Don’t Mention that E-Cigarettes are Safer than Smoking

This is another expected limitation but one that’s still pretty severe when it comes to marketing, regardless. The FDA would have to approve e-cigarettes as a modified risk tobacco product before they could be marketed as being safer than smoking, and even if one was approved, it would only be for that specific product. This is another example of having to ignore a core benefit of e-cigarettes being entirely when it comes to marketing: even though pretty much any smoker who makes the switch does so with risk reduction in mind, you can’t appeal to that when you’re advertising. Again, the “low fat” analogy works well: it’s like trying to sell a low-fat meal without being able to say you’re less likely to die of obesity-related illnesses if you reduce your fat intake.

6 – Celebrities Shouldn’t Endorse Vaping Products

Blu is the brand most commonly receiving criticism for celebrity endorsement in ads, with Stephen Dorff and Jenny McCarthy appearing in ads, although Courtney Love has also appeared in an NJOY ad. Again, this should not come as a surprise to anybody. In our celebrity-worshipping culture, the use of famous people in advertising is hardly shocking. But yet again, when the product in question is an e-cigarette, you better believe you’ll be heavily criticized for it.

Kristen Noll-Marsh, vice president of CASAA, pointed out that, “These aren’t young, sexy, hip, today, A-list celebrities. What 13-year-old knows who Stephen Dorff is?”

But of course it doesn’t really matter how famous they are or whether youth will even recognize them; the important thing is that’s it’s an e-cig ad, and this alone provides grounds for criticism in the eyes of interested parties.

McDonald’s has had celebrity endorsement from LeBron James and Serena Williams, and many soda companies use celebrities too, and even though this has been criticized, it makes it clear that celebrities advertising products (even unhealthy ones) is a fact of modern life, far from confined to e-cigarettes.

7 – Don’t Make Vaping Look Glamorous

This same trend continues when e-cigarette companies promote their products using glamorous women and rugged men, with the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids claiming this is straight out of Big Tobacco’s playbook. Tobacco Tactics (the wiki for all your tobacco-hating needs) also draws attention to e-cigarette advertising at glamorous events such as the New York Fashion Week for the same reason.

For one of the ads banned in the UK, the ASA commented that, “Because the ads presented it … in a sultry and glamorous way, we considered that they indirectly promoted the use of tobacco products.”

The concerns raised about the glamorous nature of e-cigarette advertising fall prey to the same fundamental issues as other complaints. As an advertiser, you want to portray your products as desirable. You either show glamorous people living a glamorous lifestyle (something people want) using your product, or what? The only alternative appears to be showing someone undesirable, ugly, poorly-dressed or otherwise unappealing. For anybody with even a rudimentary understanding of how to advertise products, this is obviously a ridiculous strategy.

8 – Don’t Make Products Look Too Appealing

The overall picture is clearly emerging, but one point identified on Tobacco Tactics’ e-cigarette marketing page gets the message across perfectly: it claims that “aesthetic appeal” including attractive packaging, colors and (of course) flavors is a concern when it comes to e-cigarette advertising, drawing on research conducted on cigarette brands. A report on e-cigarette marketing by Cancer Research UK identified “cosmetic appeals” as an example of “marketing aimed at youth”, along with flavors, putting forward exactly the same argument: e-cigarette or e-liquid brands can’t make their products look good without “appealing to youth.”

As with the oft-repeated flavor critique, the problem is that adults like products that look appealing too, and again the alternative is absurd: should e-cigarette companies aim to make their products look unappealing so they won’t be accused of marketing to youth? Should they say their liquids aren’t particularly tasty?

9 – Don’t Use Price as a Selling-Point

The Cancer Research UK report even points to discounts on e-cigarettes as being a strategy designed to lure youths into vaping, and a white paper from the Respiratory Health Association suggests limiting pricing discounts on e-cigarettes for this reason. This is potentially the worst example of what e-cigarette companies face: you can’t even use discounts as a marketing strategy without accusations of trying to appeal to youth.

10 – Don’t Say Vaping is for Adults Only

Finally, the paper on youth exposure to e-cig marketing puts a nail in the coffin of any attempts to avoid appealing to youth, with this quote from US district court judge Gladys Kessler about youth anti-smoking campaigns sponsored by tobacco companies:

“Emphasizing that smoking is an adult activity underscores the desirability of engaging in adult behavior for adolescents who are particularly motivated to appear mature”

The authors apply this to e-cigarettes, suggesting that even specifically saying vaping is for adults (as a Blu “take back your freedom” ad did) actually makes it more appealing to youth. In short, even if you explicitly attempt to do the right thing, you’re still doing the wrong thing.

What Can E-Cigarette Companies Do to Advertise?

The underlying theme is simple: if e-cigarette companies do anything to make their product seem appealing (otherwise known as “advertising” them), they will be criticized for it. In many cases, their ads will be pulled, even if they share features with virtually all forms of advertising. Without being able to show the act of vaping, talk about its core benefits, use glamorous imagery, have celebrity endorsements or make their products look appealing, how are vaping businesses supposed to advertise?

The uncomfortable truth is that if ads for e-cigarettes are to continue to exist, there is only one type that won’t attract criticism: bad ones. If a vaping company makes an ad showing an unknown, ugly actor wearing frumpy clothing, while not vaping from an e-cigarette that looks like it’s been dragged through mud, gravel and spit for several days on the way to the shoot, then there’s a chance that it could escape such criticism, so long as the actor in question is doing something sufficiently unglamorous, like picking bits of steak out of his teeth or coughing up phlegm. And even then, it seems like somebody, somewhere, would be offended at the very sight of an e-cigarette.

Conclusion – Let Vaping Companies Advertise, or Don’t

Criticism of e-cigarette ads entirely hinges upon factors that are common to all advertisements, effectively boiling down to, “that advertisement is advertising the company’s product, therefore it should be banned.”

Celebrities youths haven’t even heard of don’t attract youths. An ad aired at 3 am clearly isn’t intended to lure kids into vaping. Sex is used to sell everything, like it or not. Every product ever designed and every ad ever aired aims to make the product in question look appealing and to associate it with a desirable lifestyle. This is the unavoidable reality of advertising.

If marketing efforts for e-cigarettes aren’t allowed to make use of such strategies, then advertising vaping products might as well be banned altogether, because there is very, very little left. Successfully advertising e-cigs without attracting criticism is basically impossible.

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