Juul’s Bait and Switch Demographics Blitz TV With Goodwashing

May 27, 2019 Hey young people, gather round…You might want to tell your parents they’re being played by the current TV ad blitz of goodwashing by vaping giant Juul claiming to be all about smoking cessation when YOU were the ‘hard target’ from the very start. When I first heard about Juul years ago, I’d hoped their intent and target market was very similar to the exact campaign they are running now…But instead, they marketed their flash drive techie cool nicotine sticks to NONsmokers in digital spheres and social media channels using influencers with product placement to fill young hearts and minds (and lungs) with their flavored vapors and vapid values.

Juul’s marketing white paper is brimming with youth marketing appeals, complete with freebie trials, aspirational poseurs and even strategically executed product design to deliver a “less harsh” throat experience so it wouldn’t burn and stave off first time users with their first hit, as they were literally sucked in to high doses of chemicals, nicotine and other brain toxins. Cue evil predator soundtrack in my head:

“This is a vile page out of the big tobacco playbook to leverage their own “Pack of Lies” into new markets, given teen tobacco is at an all time low and they needed new lungs to poison. It was never about cessation, it’s been about opening fresh markets with fresh lungs to sustain a new generation of addicted users…”

Decades in advertising circles gives me the spin-spotting edge and critical thinking chops to deconstruct Juul’s new $10 million ad campaign of PR puffery attempting to reframe their conduct while ablaze in controversy, but it’s particularly offensive that media coverage embraces their rather cynical, misleading portrayal of themselves as a sort of lip-biting, innocent ingenue as if to say, “Oh, gee, who us? No, no, you misunderstood, golly gosh, FDA please stop those investigations we’ll self-regulate and stop selling flavors, k? We never meant to market to teens…”

For starters, media headlines touting that Juul “has agreed” not to sell flavored pods in stores is laughable…They didn’t “agree” to squat, it was legal and regulatory pressure that they continue to fight daily.

Second, retail stores are now not even where most teens are even buying them these days…the main market is online. Ditto for “agreeing to limit flavors in stores” given that once again, online, they can get any flavor they want with a click of hoop-jumping the ineffective ‘age restriction’ barriers which have long been a workaround joke in and of themselves. Then there’s the bulk order ‘entrepreneurs’ which have created budding new buzzing businesses…

As for the promise to delete Facebook/Instagram marketing, well, that’s “too late, Jake” as they already established 75% market share there with youth, they no longer NEED those platforms now given they already rolled it out, wrapped it up tightly and ignited it to purposely catch on peer to peer via word of mouth, adding an extra layer of “misunderstood outlaw” vibe which amps up the youth marketing tactics to almost cliche status.

Juul’s additional promise to “ask Twitter and Snapchat” to police posts so they’re “not shown to underage youth” is about as effective as covering kids’ eyes from stadium billboards marketing beer and booze in surround sound…C’mon folks, this is tacit lip-service on compliance. Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids has 125 health orgs demanding social media platforms halt the use of “influencers” to ply their vaping wares…Bravo.

This new Juul TV ad blitz though is really…um…a ‘jewel’ given that prior marketing purposely, swiftly, executed a youth driven con against the health of young Americans in a “catch us if you can” bait and switch from using young models and social influencers to seed and spawn nicotine use, only to now spend millions swapping out older models to tout a false narrative that they’re “only about cessation” (complete with an age disclaimer flash at the end). We all know for a fact youth weren’t in need of ‘cessation’ given the vast majority of youth wisely dissed tobacco products as gross, smelly cancer sticks long ago.

Now they’re playing the “who, us?” innocent card.

Juul trained their eye on the long tail using a bait and switch strategy claiming joy juice was ‘safer’ than cigarettes, which is a false equivalence comparison given tobacco use has plummeted and kids were NOT smoking. Now, there’s an uptick in new tobacco users reversing a two decade decline…not just vaping…tobacco use.

Since you may not SEE or smell the swirling haze of vaping’s chemical cocktail in the same manner, (which is part of the added danger, as youth draw in a full high hit of toxins and higher levels of nicotine directly into their lungs without any of the aerosol escaping into the surroundings) e-cig manufacturers continue to dupe people into thinking aerosols are relatively harmless though the American Lung Association in this updated post from Oct. 2018 reminds not to be fooled, ecig aerosol is NOT harmless …not to mention the formaldehyde and heavy metal toxins that can cling to the lungs causing cancer, this is not remotely just ‘flavored mist’ as youth may have believed.

With new research being revealed everyday, public health entities are finding the harms of nicotine showing up in vasoconstriction of blood vessels leading to heart attacks, erectile dysfunction and problematic health risks  youth have NOT been attuned to, as “The Sexpert” at Princeton peer public health warns young men,

This vasoconstriction can even cause permanent blood-vessel damage with prolonged, heavy use. As scary as ‘permanent damage’ sounds, there is good news! After smoking cessation, erectile dysfunction status improves quickly and significantly, especially in young people. Luckily, if your problem is nicotine-related, it will likely clear up if your nicotine consumption is curbed.”  

And yet Juul and its ilk had no intention of telling them. Still don’t.

Alas, where there’s money to be made by tapping rebellious motivations and adolescent triggers, VC vultures and ethically bankrupt corporate clowns are sucked in faster than a deep draw on a vaporizer, so watching Juul go from a 2015 “nothing burger” to an investor valuation of $38 billion with a name that’s now an active verb, leaving the other e-cig competitors in the fumes shouldn’t have surprised me. But it did.

Despite living in the SF Bay Area (Juul’s home turf giving it media buzz galore) when I checked out young founder James Monsees TEDx Brussels YouTube way back in 2013 prior to their 2015 launch, I was duly unimpressed, as he came across with an incoherent, rambling message, an annoying vocal fry and a cannabis stoner style swagger that made me think, “meh, not a threat, just another get rich quick tech bro wannabe with a smarmy storytelling tale that doesn’t even sound genuine, doubt PAX Labs will light up investors if that’s any indication.”

Granted, the fact that Stanford’s “D school” was mentioned as a design link was squirm worthy, but he really seemed so rookie and rogue that I naively didn’t think about the more sophisticated investors, advisers and big tobacco industry giants who would see the “market opportunity” for a new, young generation of nicotine addicts and swoop in, refine and partner. (Altria now owns about 35% of Juul, so they’ve clearly cozied up to the Marlboro Man, and that’s given them the cash to “level up” even faster in this e-cigs arms race.) 

Within the past year, use of e-cigarettes has increased among high-schoolers by 78%, and among middle-schoolers by 48% according to a lawsuit filed against Juul in North Carolina…so it actually makes sense marketing wise that they will now dial back their covert marketing with mea culpas and go overt with pricey media buys and goodwashing to sell an “adults only” and “over 21 tobacco” legal lens to make it appear they’re just good fellas and didn’t MEAN to target teens…despite that very detailed smoking gun of white paper evidence. 

What’s next? Is Juul REALLY backing off the predatory push for youth profiteering to go after the older crowd? Well, they just hired a Chief Marketing Officer, and it’s…(wait for it)Craig Brommers who hails from teen fashion brands like Abercrombie and Fitch, the Gap and Calvin Klein. We’re already seeing hoodies being designed with special vape device pockets sewn in, to accommodate the addiction d’jour, this sure doesn’t seem like a wise way to convince the world you’re not targeting teens…And one peek at the fashionista press shows how clueless the general public is about the product public health harm itself, using all the Juul buzz words that were brainwashed and seeded into the youth driven branding, terms like “innocuous and individuality” …vile, truly vile.

Data wise, a quick peek at Juul’s followers on Twitter quickly show it’s not older people into ‘cessation’ following them…At. All.

Looks like 86% of their Twitter followers are 13-20 year olds, with over 21 adults a mere 19.4%, according to JAMA Pediatrics. 

Of course, Juul’s new $10 million ads featuring older adults COULD begin to shrink their reported $38 BILLION valuation by associating anew with a parent posse, but business wise, that’s chump change and a confident PR maneuver given they can buy public good will and still have a lot of leeway to factor in the cannibalizing of their own market share. Again, they’ve already built their empire profiteering on the backs of kids…now they just have to ‘sustain it’ with a new narrative to address the detractors who are not buying the deliberate tactics deployed.

Make no mistake, targeting the teen demographic in their formative adolescent brain habituation years was a calculated decision, using a level of nicotine not even legal in most countries.

Label Literacy: Nicotine Listed by Weight vs Volume

They know what they’re doing, by obscuring the facts, masking the harm, and blurring the lines of what and how much is in each product, citing ‘weight vs volume’ for example, which confuses users trying to make a direct comparison to nicotine levels in cigarette packs.

Here’s a little Reddit thread with some complex calculations for youth to even try to discern how much nicotine they’re actually dosing into their bodies…not to mention the new research surfacing on second hand exposure in vaping dens, school bathrooms and parked cars which no longer puts it in the realm of “you do you” but more of a collective pollution, couched as coolness cache.

My anger stems from the deception and denial that youth haven’t remotely been given the full story. They’ve been conned into a cancer/tobacco comparison which only applies if they were smokers in the first place.

Now, the cover up of their malfeasance and brazen targeting of teens takes a backseat to the proliferation of paid ads blanketing the nation to reassure the public they’re all about cessation and older smokers. Unmitigated hogwash.

Though vaping may not be a “combustible” cancer agent, the highly addictive dosing and toxic chemicals delivered into a device full tilt with vascular function impacted and health risks minimized, astounds. I personally know an entire TEAM of athletes vaping their hearts out right now, thinking it’s ‘no big deal, just a mist’ and frankly, coaches and caring adults don’t have a clue as to how to counter-market the lies they’ve been served. We all know full bans can backfire and preach and teach tactics reinforce the rebellion…Juul and the others can and will use this knowledge mocking any whiff of a pearl-clutching prudish tone to their advantage.

As for headline news demanding legislative approaches? I’d argue that falls into the “crap detection 101” category too, as scholar Howard Rheingold would say.

For Juul to crow about ‘complying’ and even position themselves as leading efforts for new restrictions while simultaneously funding politicians and lobbyists to snuff them into ineffective embers is straight out of Netflix’ House of Cards style fodder.

Look no further than last week’s strong verbiage and public health clout to pass the e-cig flavors bill in California, now fully gutted as key measures were liquefied into Juul juice by lobbyists and hookah houses that somehow argued it was a ‘cultural need’ to maintain flavored e-cigs. As CalMatters explains, health orgs finally threw up their hands in disgust and disdain at the umpteen loopholes rendering it useless and killed the bill, as my own county supervisor Jerry Hill snarked upon pulling his support, “I find it hard to believe that use of gummy bear and bubble gum-flavored tobacco in any form is a cultural tradition.” 

For more on following the money trail and the weasel influence peddlers putting profit over public health, here’s a peek at who took industry money to liquefy and kill the flavored e-cigs bill in CA.

And here’s a solid explainer on why Juul and Altria now suddenly support Tobacco 21 laws after an abrupt change of tune. Again, close reading the media and following the money trail is a media literacy must for these times. Outing all the crookedness is one way to keep educating the public, but the FDA and the FTC should be stepping on themselves to pound out regulatory mandates and shut down the spin.

Meanwhile? Juul and the other e-cig players are smoke-screening parents by blitzing the airwaves with newly minted messaging that it’s all about “cessation.” To the untrained eye it will APPEAR that kids are not in their crosshairs of their marketing scope.

But they always were. And they still are.

This is part one in a three part series on vaping and the media and marketing impact on kids. We’re interviewing youth (vapers and non-vapers to weigh in with their feedback) and exploring counter-marketing tactics and techniques to turn this tanker around with the HELP of youth…

We’re crowdsourcing data, so feel free to DM me @ShapingYouth to be interviewed, add new research, or share other important information…like this piece on how Juul recruits health care researchers ($200,000 anyone?) to outreach with science claims, or this timely new data on the industry funded conflict of interests in research settings…Hmn. Lots of eye-popping tales that need told. Let’s light up the truth and see where it all lands. 

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