E-cigarettes: Marketing

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This page details the situation at a specific point in time, in 2014, when there was little regulation in place for e-cigarettes, and the UK, EU and US were the only significant markets. Regulatory authorities were considering how best to deal with these relatively new products, which were of increasing interest to the transnational tobacco companies.

This page provides details of the debate over e-cigarette advertising that guided the push for further regulation in and around 2013. In particular, it analyses concerns over companies marketing e-cigarettes to youth, and provides some examples of (controversial) e-cigarette adverts.

The connected pages on early regulation and UK marketing rules contain information specific to this period of time.

A 2021 Cancer Research UK report on E-cigarette Marketing in the UK summarises evidence from adult and youth surveys, as well as policy compliance studies and gives a comprehensive overview of the topic.1

Early Spending on the Marketing of e-cigarettes

Research from the University of Stirling revealed that spending on e-cigarette promotion in the UK increased from £1.7m in 2010 to £13.1m in 2012. In addition, in the second half of 2013, a British American Tobacco subsidiary spent £3.6m in two months to promote the launch of its e-cigarette brand, Vype in the UK.23

British American Tobacco subsidiary Vype e-cigarette advert as used on billboards, UK, January 2014.

Concerns

In the UK, the advertising of tobacco products has been banned in most of its forms since 1965. Restrictions applying specifically to the marketing of e-cigarettes did not exist until 2014, when the European Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) was introduced.4

A year before the TPD, in 2013, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) expressed concerns that, without regulation, such devices may be “marketed in a way that may ultimately promote smoking.”5 Similar concerns were also being raised by research into the marketing of e-cigarettes in the UK, published by CRUK in 2013. The research highlighted that e-cigarettes were being targeted at two distinct consumer groups:3

  • The committed smoker,
  • Young social smoker or non-smoker.

The same year, a report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States (US) found that “from 2011 to 2012, electronic cigarette use increased significantly among middle school (0.6% to 1.1%) and high school (1.5% to 2.8%) students…”6 While these percentages are relatively low, they account for nearly 2 million students in the US. E-cigarettes were increasingly being positioned as socially attractive and part of a rapidly growing trend, while being sold at exclusive events and popular venues like parties and festivals.7 Therefore, many public health researchers and advocates started to agree on the need to regulate the marketing of e-cigarettes to ensure they were not made to appeal to young people and non-smokers.

According to research,23 consumer marketing of e-cigarettes was happening via:

  • Television adverts
  • Sports and cultural sponsorship
  • Celebrity endorsement
  • Social networking
  • Online advertising
  • Point of Sale displays
  • Pricing strategies
  • Product innovation

The following concerns, relating specifically to young people, have been raised (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Glamorising use by using celebrity endorsement and promotion at glamorous events e.g. free handouts at New York Fashion Week89
  • Sexualising use in paid adverts10
  • Using social media such as Facebook and Twitter31112

Concerns about e-cigarette marketing practices3

Marketing to youth

E-cigarettes were also being marketed in a way which emulated very successful tobacco advertising: asserting an independent identity and a lifestyle choice, aligning oneself with celebrities, fashionable and youthful places and activities.313 Both independent e-cigarette companies and tobacco company e-cigarette subsidiaries engaged in marketing activities that can be interpreted as appealing to youth, even if the company line is that this is not its intention.

Independent e-cigarette companies

Independent e-cigarette companies (those which are not associated with tobacco companies) have tended “to distance their products from tobacco.”3

The following marketing techniques have been used by independents. Evidence exists that each of these strategies has been successful with youth audiences in conventional cigarette promotion:

Aesthetic appeal including attractiveness, coolness, colours and innovative packaging and flavour variations. Research on tobacco clearly indicates the appeal of such characteristics and flavourings to youth audiences.141516

  • The Internet and social media tools, used to display attractive price promotions, competitions and group discount vouchers; Price is an important determinant in purchasing behaviour, particularly amongst young people,17 and the internet presents a direct route of communication to such audiences.18
  • Celebrity endorsements and celebrity-inspired styling. This strategy is a marketing technique, 19 and also a public relations activity to promote trust in a product.20
  • Sports sponsorship (including football and motorsport, see image 1 ). Research found that corporate sponsorship of sports teams leads children to absorb the corporate marketing messages and influence purchasing decisions.212223 For example, Sky Cig made its first club-specific sponsorship deal in October 2013 (see section below), after having had an advertising presence within football for two seasons. In June 2013, London venue The O2 signed a multi-year partnership deal with E-Lites, allowing guests to use and buy the products in and around the arena.24

 

Image 1: Motorsport sponsorship, reminiscent of conventional cigarette sponsorship, e.g. Marlboro and Formula 1

Tobacco Companies

Professor Gerard Hastings, a co-author of the 2013 Cancer Research UK report on the marketing of e-cigarettes said:

“The fact that multinational tobacco companies are moving in on this market is of particular concern. From past experience, we know they are deceitful, determined and deeply detrimental to public health.”11

Research shows that, in the case of the smokeless tobacco product snus, the tobacco industry talks about harm reduction, but internal documents reveal that smokeless tobacco was seen as an opportunity to target smokers that were considering quitting, smokers in smokefree public places and a health conscious generation no longer interested in starting smoking.25

Tobacco companies’ message was somewhat different to that of the independent e-cigarette companies and the nicotine products of the pharmaceutical industry. The tobacco industry has tended to frame the independents as not understanding smokers’ needs, and the pharmaceutical industry as offering unappealing products.3Tobacco companies, instead, marketed their e-cigarettes as a dual-use products which allow smokers to access nicotine inside social venues (Image 2).

  • For more information on the Tobacco Industry’s interest in harm reduction, see our dedicated page.

Image 2:Vype advert promoting indoor use of e-cigarettes

British American Tobacco’s Vype

In 2013, British American Tobacco’s at-the-time subsidiary CN Creative outlined the target audience of their e-cigarette, Vype, as existing smokers:

“The new product is a similar weight and size to a tobacco cigarette, has a soft-tip filter and features an LED light which glows a soft red when in use. This example, demonstrates how BAT have used their existing knowledge and expertise in the smoking market and applied it to a new product and market”26

As part of its £3.6m campaign to promote Vype, CN Creative:

  • Emphasised characteristics such as freedom, sociability and fun
  • Employed social media strategies in addition to print media adverts
  • Used attractive young people in Vype branding cars to tour the UK’s cities to promote the e-cigarette27
  • Opened what was called the first social venue centred entirely around e-cigarettes: the Vype Social night club in Shoreditch, a young trendy area of London (see Image 3) Trying to get on board the vape lounge craze and using the tagline “Sociability Reborn” (Image 4), the bar was promoted heavily using social media, actively stirring discussion and therefore publicity. However, the club was closed soon after it was opened in November 2013. 28

 

Image 3: Vype bar, Shoreditch, London, open in November 2013

Image 4: Vype promotional tagline “Sociability Reborn”

BAT also received criticism in October 2013 when an advert for Vype appeared in an online children’s game (Image 5)

Image 5: Advert for Vype appears in children’s online game, October 2013

  • For more information on Vype and other BAT products see E-cigarettes: British American Tobacco

Lorillard’s Blu

Blu was an independent US e-cigarette company, acquired by US tobacco company Lorillard in 2010 (and later by Imperial Tobacco in 2015). Lorillard spent £19m promoting Blu.

In the third quarter of 2013, Blu owned 49% of the US e-cigarette market share.2329

An analysis of the marketing methods of companies selling smokeless products observed 879 adverts for Blu e-cigarettes in print and on television between 1 June 2012 and August 31 2012.30 Some have argued that marketing techniques for e-cigarettes mimic the successful advertising of cigarettes in a by-gone era31 (image 6).

 

Image 6: Comparison between iconic cigarette advert and new Blu e-cigarette advertising

Amongst other techniques, Lorillard has used the following strategies, all of which are known to appeal to youth audiences, as shown above:

  • Celebrity endorsement – Actress Jenny McCarthy and actor Stephen Dorff acted as promotional “faces” for the brand (see images 7 and 8). In one ad, Dorff says: “It’s time we take our freedom back,” before going on to say that Blu e-cigarettes can be smoked “at a basketball game … in a bar with your friends … virtually anywhere.” Inhaling with swagger, he adds: “Come on, guys, rise from the ashes.”32
  • Sports endorsement
  • Sexuality (Image 9)
  • Innovative packaging – Innovative packs alert users when they come within fifty feet of another user. Both packs start vibrating and flashing a blue light. As an alternative to this users can modify their preferences and share social media details with the other users.33
  • No reason to quit – Blu does not position e-cigarettes as a way to stop smoking, as evidenced by their US advertisement slogan–“Why quit? Switch to Blu” (Image 1

Image 7: Stephen Dorff in ironically styled Blu e-cigarette advert

Image 8: Actress Jenny McCarthy endorses Blu e-cigarettes on the product website

Image 9: Sexualising e-cigarette use

Image 10: E-cigarettes as another way of smoking

Sky Cig

The inaugural television advert for Sky Cig was first broadcast on Tuesday 15 January 2012 (this was before Lorillard took over the UK e-cigarette brand in October 2013 – by then already successful). Showing young people performing youthful activities, partying, mountain biking, relaxing in bed, and travelling. The voice-over emphases that “Life is about now” ….”Life is only asking you one thing…” – to which the answer is: “Who are you sharing it with?” Throughout the advert, in sync with the questions asked, the camera zooms-in repeatedly on the Sky Cig branded package of e-cigarettes carried by, or placed next to, all the young people depicted in the ad. As if in response to the questions posed, the voiceover ends the advert simply stating: “Sky Cig”. After a complaint to the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA), Sky Cig the advert was not permitted to run again in its original form, as is explained at the page on E-cigarettes: UK Marketing Rules.

The advert is reminiscent of the Philip Morris Be Marlboro cigarette adverts which have been aired in 50 countries around the world. The Be Marlboro campaign has been widely criticised for its youth appeal and, after running for over a year, has been banned by authorities in Germany.34

In October 2013, just when Skicig was taken over by Lorillard, the company signed a deal with the Wolverhampton Wanderers. Under first club-specific sponsorship deal, fans of the football club will be allowed to buy and use e-cigarettes within certain areas of the Molineux Stadium. Smoking has been banned within English football stadiums since 2007 when the ban on smoking in enclosed public places and workplaces came into effect; however, regulation around the use of e-cigarettes in public places is less clear cut.35

TobaccoTactics Resources

External Reources

  • Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising: E-cigarettes.

References

  1. Cancer Research UK, E-cigarette Marketing in the UK, March 2021
  2. abcM. de Andrade, G. Hastings, K. Angus, Promotion of electronic cigarettes: tobacco marketing reinvented? BMJ, 2013;347:fdoi: 10.1136/bmj.f7473
  3. abcdefghiM. de Andrade, G. Hastings, K. Angus, D. Dixon, R. Purves, The marketing of electronic cigarettes in the UK. A report commissioned by Cancer Research UK, November 2013
  4. ASH, Fact Sheet: UK Tobacco Advertising and Promotion, February 2019, accessed May 2021
  5. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, Smoking: harm reduction . Public heath guideline 45. 2013, accessed June 2021
  6. B. Eitel, CDC: Rate double for teens vaping e-cigarettes, All Voices, 18 November 2013, accessed November 2013
  7. E-cigarette marketing seen threatened under FDA scrutiny, Daily Herald, 27 October 2013, accessed January 2014
  8. T. Peterson, Free e-cigarettes at Fashion week, Which E-cigarette: your e-cigarette guide, 19 September 2013, accessed January 2014
  9. We ask the Model Alliance and NJOY: Should e-cigarettes be available at fashion week?, The Fashion Spot, 12 September 2013, accessed January 2014
  10. T. Jivanda, ‘Put it in my mouth’: Viewers outraged by apparent reference to oral sex in VIP e-cig advert, The Independent, 4 December 2013, accessed January 2014
  11. abA.Gregory, Tobacco companies ‘pushing e-cigs on youngsters via Facebook and Twitter’, Mirror, 27 November 2013, accessed January 2014
  12. Discussing the promotion of e-cigarettes in magazines with a typically youth audience[ref]C. Cardellino, Electronic cigarettes: Available for free at fashion week, Cosmopolitan, 5 September 2013, accessed January 2014
  13. Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, 7 ways e-cigarette companies are copying big tobacco’s play book, Tobacco Unfiltered, 2 October 2013, accessed January 2014
  14. C. M. Carpenter, G. F. Wayne, J. L. Pauly, H. K. Koh, G. N. Connolly. New cigarette brands with flavors that appeal to youth: Tobacco marketing strategies. Health Affairs, 2005;24(6):1601-10
  15. C. D. Czoli, D. Hammond. Cigarette packaging: youth perceptions of ‘natural’ cigarettes, filter references, and contraband tobacco. Journal of Adolescent Health, 2014;54(1):33-9
  16. A.Ford, A. MacKintosh, C. Moodie, S. Richardson, G. Hastings. Cigarette pack design and adolescent smoking susceptibility: A cross-sectional survey. BMJ Open, 2013;3:e003282
  17. F. J. Chaloupka, K. M. Cummings, C. P. Morley, J. K. Horan. Tax, price and cigarette smoking: Evidence from the tobacco documents and implications for tobacco company marketing strategies. Tobacco Control, 2002;11:i62-72
  18. S.Calvert. Children as consumers: Advertising and marketing. The Future of Children, 2008;18(1):205-34
  19. K. L. Sterling, R. S. Moore, N. Pitts, M. Duong, K. H. Ford, M. P. Eriksen. Exposure to celebrity-endorsed small cigar promotions and susceptibility to use among young adult cigarette smokers. Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 2013; e520286
  20. 3 ways startups can turn celebrity endorsements into big gains, Forbes, 3 August 2013, accessed January 2014
  21. A. J. Bush, C. A. Martin, V. D. Bush. Sports celebrity influence on the behavioural intentions of Generation Y. Journal of Advertising Research, 2004;44(1):108-18
  22. S. Pettigrew, M. Rosenberg, R. Ferguson, S. Houghton, L. Wood. Game on: do children absorb sports sponsorship messages? Public Health Nutrition, 2013;16(12):2197-204
  23. R. Macniven, B. Kelly. Sports sponsorship and kids’ health: Who are the real winners? The Conversation”, 2 October 2012, accessed January 2014
  24. Lara O’Reilly, SKYCIG signs deal with Wolves to let fans puff at Molineux, Marketing Week, 16 October 2013, accessed May 2014
  25. S. Peeters, A. Gilmore, Transnational tobacco company interests in smokeless tobacco in Europe: Analysis of internal industry documents and contemporary industry materials, PLOS Medicine, 2013;10(9):e1001506
  26. Vype, Diversify your products to stay ahead of the market, Real Business, 10 September 2013, accessed January 2014
  27. A. Ralph, Big tobacco fires up huge advert drive to ‘glamorise’ e-cigarettes. The Times, 14 September 2013
  28. Gary Cox, Shoreditch says goodbye to Vype Social, E-cigarette Forum, 26 January 2014, accessed April 2014
  29. D. Headley, Lorillard leads e-cigarettes in the US but potential collapse looms, Euromonitor International, 15 November 2013, accessed January 2014
  30. A. Richardson, O. Ganz, C. Stalgaitis, D. Abrams, D. Vallone. Non-combustible tobacco product advertising: How companies are selling the new face of tobacco. Nicotine & Tobacco Research, 2013, Published online first doi:10.1093/ntr/ntt200
  31. CSP daily news, Cigarette Flashbacks?, 8 November 2013, archived February 2014
  32. THV 11, Big tobacco airs e-cigarette TV ads as FDA readies rules, 3 September 2013, accessed January 2014
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