Youth Say Anti-Vaping Ads, Most Initiatives Miss the Mark

July 22, 2019 As a former ad agency creative director, when I saw a bunch of Muppets trash-talking the Juul brand for an e-cigs PSA pitch I quickly went into “what the bleep” mode wondering how the branding could be so off the mark.

I’m a huge fan of the former Truth Initiative campaign that used a ‘lift and reveal’ tonality of covert, corrupt tactics spotlighting the corporate agenda of big tobacco profiteering in nefarious forms…but this one using muppets for an anti-vaping message? Seriously? “Mind Blown” is right. I get they’re likely trying to make a “what kind of a puppet are you” analogy, but the execution falls somewhere between shaming and sophomoric. Research has shown that adolescents need (and thrive) with respect, so why are we talking down to them?

In an era when public health advocates need a massive counter-marketing assault on bait and switch companies like Juul who use manipulation as a tool and media as a distribution channel, preach and teach tactics might as well be a Juul strategy in itself to prove how tone deaf adults are in their lack of understanding with youth outreach.

The other big money spender seems to be the dark and brooding scary soundtrack style approach of the Flavors Hook Kids campaign touting the brain poison aspects of nicotine, which again, smacks of a callback to yesteryear in ‘this is your brain on vaping’ kind of corollary…

On the flip side, Flavors Hook Kids has helpful parent guides and conversation starters in free download formats and their site is chock full of stats and health harms for education.

I personally just don’t think the ads should take the fear-factor approach as it’s an eyeroll for many “too cool for school” types who will find it heavy-handed and oppressive coming from an adult vs peer to peer positioning. I’m curious whether these big money advocacy efforts tested advertising via focus groups with young people? If so, I’d REALLY like to see that data.

So today, we’re asking youth themselves what THEY think about some of the ideas being deployed to curb the epidemic of vaping…Call it a FREE FOCUS GROUP in the name of sparking some fresh ideas for outreach to switch the track on this runaway train. But first… a few editorial reactions from yours truly.

While I believe the Truth Initiative’s new apps and programs aimed to help youth quit vaping are on the right track, it was disturbing to find that out of the dozens of youth I spoke with not one had heard of This is Quitting, a free text message program, even though the Truth site notes that enrollment surgedimmediately after being featured in Snapchat’s “Discover” channel at the beginning of 2019.

Truth is using the same type of colorful marketing that Juul used to hook them in the first place, which is a nice echo calling out Juul’s smokescreen. After all, despite what Juul’s marketing team claims, one peek behind the curtain makes it painfully obvious youth were not only targeted, but in the future user crosshairs, making their claims a “pack of lies.”…Clearly there was no “accident” there. 

Truth is also aligned with tobacco cessation programs like the EX program, “Become an Ex” and there are no shortage of apps out there helping smokers who truly WANT to quit, even though the students I spoke with were unaware of them.

In fact, Healthline lists “Best Quit Smoking Apps of 2019” but sadly, I don’t see Truth’s anti-vaping text app/service among them. I went in search of a “DitchJuul” hashtag on Twitter but only found ONE  Tweet (no stream) which houses the Mashable story giving 5 Reasons why Juul’s not cool.

The #EndVaping hashtag and #JuulsNotCool tweet streams fared better, so it seems if all the advocacy groups picked ONE hashtag and stuck with it for a concerted effort it might gain more traction.

Conceptually, the quitting ideas DO seem like a logical place to funnel efforts to help youth withdrawal given most prevention efforts have fallen flat. Juuling is becoming a switchout word for vaping…much like Kleenex is for tissue…and that’s some serious brand dominance to counter-market, given their reputation for the highest nicotine. It’s also interesting to note that the younger the respondent, the more the perception of Juuling in their worlds is a verb and a ‘given.’

Vape Culture vs. A Flavor Flings 

Younger teens appeared to view vape culture as a ‘too far gone’ type of social phenomenon to curb, hopscotching straight into nicotine withdrawal aids and suggestions for helping young users quit, which may indicate how far behind the advocacy efforts are in comparison to the social presence and pervasiveness. It hints at the dialing down of the demographic exposed to Juuling, it adds massive use prevention concerns with middle schools, given those use stats are remarkably on the rise, and Truth has reported Juuling is not “just experimenting” as youth get hooked fast.

The youth featured below (and in my prior post) also mentioned price points as a deterrent too, but it looks like the Truth Initiative has already tried that as well with their social media hashtag #I’dRatherBuy to get youth to take action and share their thoughts on what they might spend money on if they could just ditch Juuling.

Happening Right Under Your Nose 

After school coaches accustomed to the mass exodus of female preteens into the bathroom at once, have shifted from the puberty and menses privacy awareness to the increasingly common note that they’re often Juuling. Boys reportedly are still more prone to take up Juuling than girls, according to the stats, but given that the devices are easily concealable, we’re starting to see brazen ‘dares’ to Juul right in the middle of class, in hallways or cafeterias just to ‘prove they can’ in tribal defiance that’s classic adolescent rebellion. (stories are shared ephemerally on Snapchat, helping Juul’s storytelling go viral, while feeding into the behavioral catch me if you can mode) 

Add that to the vape market proliferating with new clothing launches of special pockets and all the fruity flavors, celebrity endorsements, YouTube personas and adults putting their hands over their ears with “situational trust” instead of uncorking a genuine conversation about use and addiction and it’s time to call for creative colleagues to flip the script with some counter-marketing STAT.

Wanted: Original, Authentic Health Messaging 

C’mon ad agency folks…how would YOU counter-market the harm with aspirational edge, treating kids with respect instead of patronizing finger wags? How can we innovate to educate without blowing it all out of context?

What works to tap originality and authenticity…influencers, guerrilla marketing street teams, or even ‘put your younger sibling behind this vape pen’ protective approaches to care?

What about subtle, stealth health sponsors and cross-promotions? Where are the healthy athletes puffing from exertion instead of smoke?

Where are the iconic music legends using their bold, untarnished pipes at concerts and festivals to be the antithesis to vaping “sheeple” following the herd?

How about plotlines embedded in favorite shows or aspirational character portrayals that seed a subtle anti-vaping message without whacking them over the head with it?

Health risk-wise, I still think the impotence angle is an underused deterrent for young males…but Truth has even toyed with that in their “hard conversations” videos like this(again, youth I interviewed had ZERO knowledge of this health data)

Where should the outreach occur next? Who is the best counter-marketing influencer to cut through the clutter? It’s time to seed a wry, witty blow to the misplaced ‘coolness cache’ of what increasingly appears to be a bunch of YouTuber influencer wannabes sucking on flash drives for cash. The question is how.

Without further ado, here’s round two of student voices (to add to the co-viewing group who watched Vaporized) in partnership with colleague Rosalind Wiseman’s youth team at Cultures of

Meet youth advisers, editors & interns Julie, 16, Lara, 17, Micah, 17, Nikki, 19, and David 21

Youth Voices:

In Conversation with “Cultures of” 

Shaping Youth: Given the predominance of vaping at the HS and college level, now reaching downward into middle school 6-8th grade, many are advocating legislation and bans to ‘curb’ the sale/diminish use…Is this effective w/youth? Why or why not? Solutions? (Bold highlights indicate my key takeaways of the youth team’s feedback)

Julie, 16, Editor: I think vaping – mainly Juuling – is so widespread at this point that banning it wouldn’t be effective, as kids will find another way to get hold of the product – making it more expensive is the only way to prevent kids from buying it. 

Nikki, 19, Intern: Vaping is not just the isolated act of inhaling and exhaling-it’s an active form of social behavior, a sector of youth culture that flourishes so strongly because it’s extremely bonding. A ban would be futile at this point in time because 1) it will be met with much resistance and 2) it stifles choice and undermines youth autonomy. A decrease in youth vaping has to be out of our own self-agency. Raising the price of pods will help without question, but for enduring change to occur, there needs to be a collective shift in consciousness.

David 21, Cultures Advisories Council Member: The effectiveness of legislation designed to ‘curb’ the sale and use of youth entirely depends on what the legislation does. Obviously, by banning the production and sale of vapes (especially those used by youth), the number of youths vaping will decrease. However, with increased age requirements that are enforced better, the number of youths vaping will likely decrease (this doesn’t really apply to college students as they are either of age or can easily obtain items that require a certain age given the wide use of fake identifications on campuses).

As with alcohol, HS youths will always find a way to obtain it (but on a smaller scale than college students. I believe the same applies for vaping and other nicotine products). I must disagree with Nikki that a decrease in youth vaping must be “out of our own self-agency,” as nicotine-related epidemics have been ended before in the US by government action (e.g. the government heavily taxed cigarettes and employ and still has a widespread anti-smoking campaign; 43% of adults smoked in 1970, ~15% today). For a decrease in youth vaping, the sale of products must be heavily taxed and highly regulated, legislation should harshly prohibit the underage use of nicotine products, and a wide-spread information campaign on the harmful effects of vaping should be enforced beginning in elementary school through high school.

Micah, 17, Intern: I strongly agree with Nikki that the act of vaping is a social phenomenon that can only be stopped with a social change.  The vast majority of vaping comes from social situations and I believe that many of the teens addicted to nicotine aren’t as addicted to nicotine as they think, but instead to the social acceptance that comes with Juuling.  So, legislation banning the sale of vapes will only scratch the surface of the issue.  

Shaping Youth: If youth prefer education/health literacy to opt in or out via their own self-agency or choice…what methods do you think would work best to reach them? (e.g. flipping the narrative to rage against the machine/revealing the agenda of big tobacco giants/vaping corps to hook youth early on etc.?)

Nikki, 19: Stats, stats! In a world so STEM dominant, having scientific evidence of the bodily hazards of vaping is far more effective than trying to plead with rhetoric. Contextualized statistics speak for themselves and are hard to argue with. 

Also, Scare tactics are an overused method. A 60-year old with lung cancer pleading on a TV screen is too distant for a 17 year old to relate to; the generation gap contextualizes their behaviors differently.

What teens need to see is themselves. The other week, my best friend from high school told me that ever since she started casually Juuling at parties, she can feel her lungs weakening when she goes hiking. Her story stuck with me because of how mundane it was. Someone my age, who has to live with the physical consequences of her actions. Teens need to find the courage to be honest and vulnerable with their peers. The message is more poignant when it comes from someone we can relate to, someone who could very well be us.

David 21: I think that presenting statistics is, in its own way, a scare tactic (but that isn’t to say that it doesn’t work). 

Micah, 17: Facts and evidence are only effective to a certain point.  Too many facts will lose meaning and the attention of young people.  A lot of the current commercials are just facts with no emotional connection to young people.  And that’s exactly what young people need is a genuine helping hand, not just facts and scare-tactics.  

Shaping Youth: What methods and messaging do you think would best trigger a behavioral turnaround, given Gen Z has been duped and played into thinking that vaping is ‘no big deal and safe’ when it’s clearly not? (key harms NOT widely known like impotence, secondhand toxic chemical exposure, and vaso-constriction/heart issues, stroke with excessive intake, like this 22 year old/two Juul pods a day) 

David 21: People very well may not stop from becoming aware of the harmful effects of their behavior. However, this behavior can be curbed in other ways, such as heavily taxing (and therefore increasing the price of) nicotine products.

Micah, 17: Yes, many teens have been brainwashed into vaping, yet a lot are waking up and know the consequences of it.  The problem is that these teens who have become conscious of the risks don’t know how to get out of their addiction. So, I think we need to send messages to youth on how to quit and how to avoid the social temptation.  

Shaping Youth: How do you think we could best inform GenZ teens peer to peer to flip the script? (e.g. College Humor/YouTube/John Oliver-late night comedy etc/memes/gifs as a viable vehicle to enlighten/inform?) 

Nikki, 19: Social media influencers

Lara, 17, Editor: In a lot of YouTube videos you can see people using vaping devices. If someone is a devoted fan of a specific YouTuber that vapes, then they might want to replicate their actions. If a YouTuber were to say why they don’t vape, I think that could be an effective way of making less people want to begin vaping.

David 21: Not considering the legislative ways to stop kids from vaping, a widespread information campaign could be employed that takes the form of Spotify ads, snapchat ads, etc., and target these ads to youth/likely to be Juul smokers (easy, given the data available today)

Micah, 17: I agree with the “social media influencers” comment. One of the only influential “ads” I’ve seen came from a simple PSA from a YouTuber who is addicted to Juuling.  But, every bit of the current marketing against vaping is all TERRIBLE. Right now there seems to be a massive anti-vaping commercial movement via all forms of social media, but the problem is that they are all useless.  Two of the biggest movements I’ve seen are from The Truth and The Real Cost (which were both involved in the anti-cigarette movement). All of the “The Truth’s” ads are all with the Muppets Juuling and then saying how bad nicotine is, or saying how “Vaping makes teens 4x more likely to smoke cigarettes.”  These approaches are useless and fall so short of actually connecting with the age group they need to reach.  

Shaping Youth: Would non-user peer to peer pressure work in a ‘health messaging’ humor approach, (e.g. “you do you, but keep that s* away from ME” kinda thing?)

Julie, 16: To some extent, yes, but I still think it’s just a matter of time until juuling/vaping becomes unpopular. It’s a trend, it’ll go sooner or later.

Lara, 17: I personally don’t think it would work. People that are vaping, at least in my experience, are doing it to be part of a group that they feel is cool. One person saying “I don’t want to do that” isn’t going to make people want to quit Juuling because they already belong to a group they deem as cool. 

David 21: Not at a college level. Once in college, if someone is voluntarily choosing to vape, most people will just do what they want…

Micah, 17: For the most part, no. If 95% of the people at a party are Juuling, a kid will not care about the 1 or 2 people that don’t vape and go around proving to everyone else how bad nicotine is.  That being said, if there’s a teen who already kind of wants to quit vaping yet all their friends do it, seeing someone who has never touched a vape will help motivate them to quit themselves.  However, an example like this is pretty rare.

Thanks to all the youth contributors in both part 4 and part 5 in this vaping series…and please DO sound off with YOUR voices and views at all ages and stages with ideas of how we can get The Truth out to educate young people on the tips and tactics being used. Special thanks to the Cultures of Dignity team doing great work in and out of schools nationwide on a wide array of youth culture topics.

Stay tuned as their youth panel expands to join us for a conversation on “ghosting” in the workplace, in relationships, and in media portrayals, for part two in our ghosting series. (part one on ghosting is here) We’ll also be joined by the middle school teen advisers from in Boston on this topic as well. 



  1. Adding this new piece in Edweek about how SCHOOLS are trying to deal with the unknowns…again, need to carefully consider the methodology and neuroscience behind the appeals to adolescents…Still think peer to peer/first person experiential pushback via “influencers” could reframe the convo into teen terms…

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