Slim. Charged. Ready to go. Are electronic cigarette ads targeting kids?

Lori Bahnmueller 05/06/14 - 9:02 pm

Growing up in the 70s, I was surrounded by smokers. Dad smoked. Mom smoked. Teachers. Priests. People on TV. People in office buildings. Doctors. Even Wilma Flintstone smoked.

So, kids openly pretended to smoke. How else could one make-believe if our characters weren’t believable, complete with a burning accessory? Every doctor, veterinarian, secretary, homemaker, firefighter and bus driver we imagined had a cigarette perched in her mouth or tucked between her fingers, occasionally tapping out the ashes for dramatic effect.

Sometimes we’d score candy cigarettes. Those little packs of sugar sticks made our scenes sing, punctuated with little powdered sugar clouds. We felt like John Wayne on the set of True Grit.

Cigarette consumption consumed us all. That’s why it’s taken more than four decades of regulations, taxes, public policy, public ridicule and clever social marketing campaigns to inspire consumers do something else with our hands, and give kids something better to emulate (texting?). In fact, cigarette smoking didn’t stop being cool until 2012 (Reuters), as evidenced by the record decline in teen smoking.

Now teens are just pretending to smoke, vaping electronic cigarettes at a rate of one in 10 (Centers for Disease Control). And while e-cigarettes may taste like gummy bears, chocolate and cherry, they’re not made of candy. They’re made of nicotine, which can come from tobacco.

Chocolate flavored cigarettes?

Electronic cigarettes deliver nicotine to the user as a vapor. They are usually battery-operated and come with a replaceable cartridge that contains liquid nicotine. When heated, the liquid in the cartridge turns into a vapor that’s inhaled. Teen-friendly flavors add to the allure.

They’ve been on the market for about a decade, but it wasn’t until 2013 that manufacturers opened the advertising floodgates on broadcast TV, complete with rugged actors and hot models reminiscent of tobacco advertising lore. Yesterday John Wayne, today Stephen Dorff.

Electronic cigarette producers have become increasingly brazen in their advertising, employing old school tobacco ad tactics to attract new consumers—largely school-age consumers, critics argue. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition this year featured the toned torso of a bikini bottomed model, her navel and bathing suit branded with Blu e-cigarette’s logo. The copy reads “Slim. Charged. Ready to go.” Talk about teen spirit.

The Food and Drug Administration is not entertained. The FDA recently proposed new rules that would give the regulator power to oversee the increasingly popular devices, as it does traditional cigarettes. The rules would ban the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors and regulate the amount nicotine in the devices.

“This proposed rule is the latest step in our efforts to make the next generation tobacco-free,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. According to the FDA, much is still unknown about the effects of e-cigarettes, including whether they could be a gateway to smoking.

Electronic cigarette ads threatening decades of social marketing progress?

A JAMA Pediatrics study found that adolescents who have smoked and also used electronic cigarettes were less likely to have given up smoking than those who didn’t use e-cigarettes. The authors concluded that the use of electronic cigarettes doesn’t discourage, and may encourage, conventional cigarette use among kids.

Electronic cigarette proponents say that vaping is harmless and helps smokers kick the habit. My 13-year-old son backs this up, citing his sixth-grade health class. He remembers them being ranked with nicotine patches and nicotine gum as a viable way to quit smoking.

The FDA has only begun to take formal action toward regulating electronic cigarettes, initiating a public comment period whereby all interested parties—including the companies and public health advocates—can register their opinions. It may take years before the new rules take effect.

Meanwhile, expect electronic cigarette advertising to heat up as competitors vie for lucrative market share. In 2013, annual sales were more than $1.7 billion. Both Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, and R.J. Reynolds plan to start national marketing campaigns for their electronic cigarettes later this year, according to the New York Times.

Of the five kids in my family, three of us would become smokers. Blame it on the ads. Blame it on our role models. Blame it on those sweet little candy cigarettes. They’re terrible odds, unless you’re betting on cigarettes—electronic or otherwise.

At Brogan & Partners, we’re betting electronic cigarettes have a future in social marketing.

Let us know what you think. Join our informal panel, Brogan Talks to Women, and take our short survey about electronic cigarette advertising. Your participation is strictly confidential and you could win a gift certificate just for taking the survey.  

Blog Category: Social Marketing

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