Say you were a villainized e-cigarette startup, with a $13 billion cash investment from the tobacco giant that owns Marlboro, and were blamed for kicking off a vaping epidemic among teens. You’d lay low, right? Maybe play nice with the FDA. Log off Instagram. Throw a few coins at a youth prevention campaign. Juul, however, is opting for a more aggressive route.
On Tuesday Juul confirmed that it plans a national TV ad campaign featuring ex-smokers who used Juul to help them quit traditional cigarettes. CNBC, which first reported the plan, said Juul plans an initial $10 million campaign, airing on national cable channels after 10pm local time and aimed at adults 35 and older.
TV ads for tobacco products have been banned under federal and state regulations since the 1970s, and print ads are restricted. Advertising standards have not been formalized for e-cigarettes, which are regulated differently by the Food and Drug Administration. E-cigarette companies have advertised on TV before, notably Blu and NJOY, which ran a Super Bowl ad in 2012. But in the intervening years, Juul has far eclipsed both brands, with 70 percent of the retail market, according to data from Nielsen.
TV is a new medium for Juul, which has grown through social media channels like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, although the company claims most of the marketing is organic and unpaid. As criticism grew, the company changed the look and feel of its online accounts to focus exclusively on adult smokers switching to Juul.
Juul’s version of the post-millennium Marlboro Man is less seductive and more cautionary. The TV ads, which Juul posted on its company blog, share the same somber, drab aesthetic—a radical departure from its initial brightly colored #Vaporized campaign, which featured attractive twentysomething users.
Juul shut down its US-based Instagram account in November after an FDA raid on its headquarters and the agency’s wider crackdown on e-cigs. At the time, Juul also pledged to provisionally suspend in-store sales of some of its sweet flavors, like mango, while continuing to sell mint-flavored pods, a popular flavor with kids. Days after Juul announced its self-regulation plan, the FDA released proposed rules around e-cigarettes that stopped short of an outright ban.
Then, in December, Juul said it had agreed to accept a $12.8 billion investment from Altria in exchange for a 35 percent stake in Juul. That appears to have irked the FDA. The agency did not respond to questions from WIRED. But commissioner Scott Gottlieb told The New York Times last week that the companies secretly negotiated a financial deal to extend Juul’s reach, even as they told federal regulators they wanted to stop underage vaping. Gottlieb told the Times he is drafting letters to both companies and plans to summon executives to FDA headquarters to explain themselves. Coming just days later, Juul’s small-screen debut could be interpreted as another instance of flouting the FDA.
Elizabeth Crisp Crawford, a communications professor at North Dakota State University and author of the book Tobacco Goes to College, says Juul’s proposed campaign will likely appeal to its intended audience, middle-aged viewers, because Millennial and Gen Z consumers don’t really watch TV. But she said Juul’s initial TV budget is small compared to brands like Pepsi. “It’s either a diversion or some kind of PR move. $10 million, it’s nothing. It’s chump change when you look at what a Super Bowl commercial cost,” she says.
Stanford professor Robert Jackler says Juul’s actions now should be evaluated in the context of its deal with Altria, because Marlboro is the most popular combustible cigarette brand among underage users. The companies both claim they don’t market to youth. “But whatever they say, the result of their product design and marketing,” both Juul and Marlboro have demonstrated “profound success” with high schoolers and middle schoolers.
“The fact that a hugely popular brand of nicotine-delivery system is now showing up on broadcast TV and radio is a concern and could reverse many of the gains” of past anti-smoking efforts, Jackler says. He adds that the union could be a “back door” for both companies to increase sales, with adult smokers using both products, rather than switching.
What’s more, Jackler sees the $10 million figure as just a trial to see how the media, public, and legislators react. If there’s little outcry, Juul might eventually include sweet and fruity flavors in its TV ads, arguing that some adults prefer that.
Juul did not directly respond to questions from WIRED asking about fruity flavors in future TV ads. Spokesperson Victoria Davis instead pointed to the company’s marketing code. “Each story strictly adheres to our marketing code, which ensures that we carefully target adult smokers and forgo paid promotion on social media platforms,” Davis wrote by email. Juul’s marketing code does not say anything about flavors. And Juul has paid micro-influencers in the past, although the company claims it was fewer than 10 influencers, ages 28 and up, who were collectively paid less than $10,000.
Regulators would be wise to halt the upcoming TV campaign before it begins, Jackler says. “There’s a long history of big tobacco escaping intended regulations.”