Why a Ban on TV Advertising Would Be Good for the E-Cigarette Industry

TV remote control

Linkbait again? Folks, web copywriting is part of my job, so you might as well get used to it.

But I’m serious with this one, and I think most of you will agree with me by the time you get to the end of this post.

Television advertising for e-cigarettes is an even more recent phenomenon than e-cigarettes themselves. The ads began running on cable networks and local stations at the end of 2012. It didn’t take long before they started to attract complaints. One British ad won the dubious distinction of “most complained-about ad of 2013.” (It sounds hilarious, but I can see why they decided only to run it after 11 p.m.) Articles about the money poured into e-cigarette advertising started to appear in USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and AdAge—just to name a few.

The backlash against e-cigarette advertising, particularly on television, was predictable and violent. Most of the resistance focuses on a perception that ads are targeting children (and not just the coveted 18-35 young adult demographic), but much of it, also, on the possibility that these advertisements, and the very existence of e-cigarettes, could “renormalize smoking.”

“Renormalize smoking”? Could we talk about hookah lounges for a minute? The CDC says that as many as 40% of college students have tried hookah smoking. (Figures vary from study to study: 10%, 15%, 22%…) Apparently many young people don’t realize that smoking hookah is dangerous. And while the worst the FDA and the CDC can say about e-cigarettes is “We can’t be sure they’re safe,” the evidence seems to be clear that hookah is at least as dangerous as cigarettes and possibly more so.

But I digress.

Back to e-cigarettes and television advertising. I pretty much stopped watching television when I was fifteen and moved in with my father, because TV reception at his place was terrible and cable hadn’t reached that part of the boondocks yet. (Heck, city water hadn’t reached that part of the boondocks yet. And I think they may have gotten cable first.) It was not that big a sacrifice and I’ve never bothered to resume the habit. I don’t generally see TV advertisements for anything, and I prefer to keep it that way.

For the sake of this post, however, I’ve watched a few e-cig ads on YouTube. What’s-her-name in the blu eCigs “Freedom” ad is irritating, but since she’s sitting in a nightclub, I can’t interpret that as an ad aimed at young teens. In fact, since she’s in a nightclub, it’s hard to imagine anyone under 21 entering that scenario. You might nail Blu on “renormalizing smoking” in that ad, but not on marketing to children.

Let’s leave aside the whole question of the ethics of e-cigarette advertising for a minute and just look at some numbers.

There are two recent studies that provide some useful numbers on industry spending on e-cigarette advertising. The first is Senator Dick Durbin’s Gateway to Addiction report from April 2014 and the second is “Vaporized: E-cigarettes, Addiction, and Youth,” published by Legacy for Health in May 2014. Neither of these reports is what you would call friendly to the electronic cigarette industry, but there are interesting conclusions to be drawn from their data, conclusions that go far beyond those the authors present in their summaries.

E-cigarette advertising spending by brand, from the Legacy study
E-cigarette advertising expenditure by brand, June-November 2013, from the Legacy study. blu eCigs (owned by Lorillard) was the top spender in all categories; print magazines were actually the advertising medium of choice for all the brands surveyed.

The first illustration comes from the Legacy report. I recommend reading the entire report, which will also give you a chance to zoom in on that graph, but to make a few points that may not be immediately clear at this scale:

  • All of the brands surveyed sell primarily, if not exclusively, cigalikes—e-cigarettes designed to mimic tobacco cigarettes as closely as possible in appearance. This is often what smokers want when they are first experimenting with e-cigs, so as not to stand out too much (“look too dorky” is the expression I’ve heard), but naturally these are the e-cigarettes that would be most likely to “re-normalize smoking.”
  • blu eCigs, the brand that spent almost four times as much money as its nearest competitor, is owned by Big Tobacco company Lorillard (Newport, Kent, True). So far those next-closest competitors NJOY and FIN are still independent, though rumor has it that NJOY is just holding out for a large enough offer.
  • Print magazines are actually the e-cigarette advertising medium of choice.
  • Only four brands advertised on national television: blu, NJOY, FIN, and Starfire.

FIN’s TV ad shows adults in adult settings, mainly bars. NJOY’s ads have drawn fire from their 2012 “Feels Like the First Time” to their 2014 “Return the Favor” spots—but again, though I can see where an argument might be made for “re-normalizing smoking,” I can’t see anything in them aimed at young children. Starfire has a clever 4-minute cartoon emphasizing convenience and cost savings, a music video, and a spot about a newlywed couple. I’m guessing it’s the latter two that would have aired on TV; no one puts a 4-minute video on television. The ads suggest that e-cigs are sexy, yes, but they certainly don’t seem to be aimed at children.

What Can We Conclude?

Looking at this study (and I did read the whole study, so I’m not looking at these numbers in complete isolation), we can draw a preliminary conclusion that if we took television advertising out of the equation entirely, it would not have a significant impact on most e-cigarette advertising. Of the 24 brands surveyed in this study (a small number compared to the thousands of e-cigarette, e-liquid, mod, tank, and accessory manufacturers), only four advertised on national TV.

Given the small number of advertisers, TV advertising has a disproportionate impact on audiences. Another part of the study reports that 40% of all 13-17 year-olds were aware of television ads for e-cigarettes. So there might be a considerable positive benefit in terms of youth exposure if television advertising of e-cigarettes were banned. But the Legacy report suggests that the effect of a TV advertising ban on the industry would be minimal. 

Further Reports: Who’s Advertising E-cigarettes on TV?

E-cigarette advertising channels broken down by brand, from Dick Durbin's report
Marketing and advertising channels reported by e-cigarette manufacturers in
“Gateway to Addiction? A survey of popular e-cigarette manufacturers and targeted marketing to youth”

Technically I suppose I should have included this excerpt first, since the report was published earlier, but I think the expenditure graphs are more interesting and persuasive.

Once again, the reason the report was published was to argue that e-cigarette companies are targeting youth (a slippery term, since the Legacy report also included statistics about 18-21 year-olds, who are assuredly young, but nevertheless of legal smoking age). But the more interesting question is “Who, exactly, is doing this alleged targeting?” 

Look at that list of manufacturers. First, it’s a sample size of nine. Second, it includes three Big Tobacco companies: Altria, R.J. Reynolds, and Lorillard—and while they were in the middle of the study, Altria bought Green Smoke, somewhat confusing the situation. VMR (maker of V2) and NJOY are what you might call “Big E-cigs”—cigalike manufacturers with enough money to hire lobbyists. Together they own a larger share of the e-cig market than the Big Tobacco companies do, but they don’t have as much advertising money and are fighting to maintain their position as Big Tobacco moves in and FDA regulations loom.

One gets the impression that the authors of the survey either looked for the top money-makers or just walked into the nearest cigarette shop to see what e-cigs were for sale. The report does not actually state the criteria by which it chose manufacturers to survey. Maybe they just set out to interview the companies whose ads they’d actually seen.

VMR and NJOY and blu all have lots of customers, but theirs are not the products that long-term vapers use. The products used by the vapers I know, and the companies that make and sell them, are not even mentioned in either of these studies. Second-generation e-cigarettes like the eGo might as well not even exist. Forget mods, tanks, and drippers, let alone the flourishing e-liquid industry. These people are writing reports complaining about e-cigarette flavors, and they haven’t even seen flavors.

If we banned e-cigarette advertising on TV, it would level the playing field.

Right now, Big Tobacco and a handful of other companies have a huge advantage: they can afford to advertise on television, and because there are still millions of people who watch TV, and even millions of people who watch TV commercials, they can increase awareness of their brands in a way that smaller companies can’t.

If there were no e-cigarette ads on TV, no one would really lose. (Except possibly advertising agencies.)

The tobacco companies shrieked that they would go out of business when cigarette ads were no longer permitted on television. You’ll note that this did not happen.

And even the handful of companies (there appear to be about 7) that do advertise on television are actually putting more money into other marketing channels. They are not betting the farm on TV—and in any case, TV is no longer the only or necessarily the best way to distribute video.

Three groups of people will benefit:

The anti-smoking crusaders who fear the re-normalization of smoking would be happier without these alleged bad influences in our faces during prime time.

The independent e-cigarette manufacturers would be in a better position to compete, even though they will still not be able to buy as many magazine ads or newspaper column inches or sponsor as many events as the Big Tobacco companies will.

Serious vapers, who don’t buy cigalikes anyway, will continue to get product recommendations from friends or by watching YouTube reviews.

So go ahead. Ban e-cigarette advertising on television. We’ll all be better off.

Sallie
WordPress fangirl, ghostwriter, linguistic alchemist, podcast consultant, and accidental vapor advocate. Married with 2 cats.

3 Comments

  1. There was another British study on ‘normalization’ of smoking via e-cigs and it found the exact opposite. E-Cigs don’t normalize smoking, they make smoking even less desirable.

    1. I would tend to agree that e-cigarettes make smoking less desirable because they present a more attractive alternative. A lot of people carry on about “It looks like smoking.” The use of cigalikes does look like smoking. Using second or third-generation e-cigarettes does not look at all like smoking, unless all you see is the plume of vapor from a distance.

  2. I am against commercials that may promote any kind of drinking or smoking habits. Be it normal cigarettes or e-cigarettes, repeating tv commercials can influence kids to start an unwanted habit. E-cigarettes may be designed to reduce the ill effects of using normal cigarettes. But they still contain nicotine and is still harmful, though not as much as that of normal cigarettes. Any media that kids have access to should not contain anything that promote smoking, drinking or drug usage. A good TV commercials must give a positive message to the kids and adults alike.

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