How anti-vaping ads market vaping to teens

My daughter is a teenager and I hear all sorts of stories about the antics of her peers.

They include teenagers smoking in the schoolyard, drinking alcohol until they collapse and doing drugs on the school bus.

Crucially, they are not doing these things because they think they are safe.

They are well aware that these things are forbidden and unhealthy. They do them because they are ‘cool’, rebellious and – yes – dangerous.

This psychology is key to understanding why a campaign to stop children from vaping has backfired.

Vaping puppets

The Truth Campaign, for example, used vaping puppets in YouTube videos (now since removed).

While the videos advised against using vapes, note that the vaping puppet was the coolest character in the adverts, easily appealing to the children most likely to rebel.

Highlight the danger

One key to appealing to rebellious teenagers is to highlight the sense of danger. The advert appears to do just that, even if it’s too nonsensical to believe.

Here’s another example:

Of course, if you are a rational adult with the heightened sense of danger that comes with increasing age, you’d find this horrifying.

But, as Clive Bates pointed out at the E-Cigarette Summit last year, not all teenagers are the sweet, rational human beings we’d like them to be:

A group of rebellious teenagers.

If you were a young, rebellious teenager – you know, the sort that is likely to drink, smoke and do drugs – don’t you think you would be curious?

Building Brand Awareness

Many of the adverts focussed on one vape brand – JUUL.

JUUL vape advert with a cloud of vapour obscuring a face.

The media picked up on this, multiplying the reach across news and media channels.

I think that a key reason why the brand became so successful, so quickly, was that most of the advertising was done for them and done for free.

Indeed, in our own shops, we operate a challenge 25 log and someone who looks under 25 needs to show identification.

Most people who are challenged and can not provide identification, are asking about JUUL.

Effectively, anti-smoking organisations have spent hundreds of millions promoting a brand they hate to the children they are supposed to be protecting.

Using multiple marketing techniques in video

With hundreds of millions of dollars to spend, anti-vape campaigners don’t limit themselves to posters of course, and numerous videos and even TV adverts have been shown.

One video I found emphasises:

  • that good children are vaping
  • there are endless flavours to use
  • students who get straight As vape
  • they can be used to do cool tricks (which can be looked up on YouTube)
  • kids who vape are more popular
  • if you don’t vape you will be looked at as an outsider
  • it’s become more and more popular
  • it’s cool
  • you can hide it from your parents.

Check it out for yourself:

Use Viral Campaigns

To extend the reach of their campaign, one anti-smoking group used viral marketing to reach out to teenagers.

Activities in the video included people jumping into a pool with a JUUL strapped to their chest, dropping them in water, dragging them behind a car and more.

Vaping360 highlighted the dangers of the campaign, as some of these activities could cause the batteries to go into thermal runaway.

The campaign, in turn, lead children to undertake more risky behaviour, including hammering live vape batteries and setting them on fire with gasoline.

What happened?

One danger with campaigns that try to get people to STOP people doing things is they can raise awareness and curiosity in people who might NOT have known about it in it in the first place.

Anti-smoking groups have got form here, with some studies (referenced below) suggesting that anti-smoking adverts have actually increased smoking rates.

Did the same happen with vaping? One non-profit, the Competitive Institute Organisation, analysed vaping rates before and after the anti-vaping campaign.

The institute found that prior to an ‘anti-vaping’ campaign, youth vaping rates were plummeting. 

But just as youth vaping was starting to evaporate like a gentle cloud of vapour, anti-smoking organisations launched a barrage of media, leading the institute to conclude:

“Anti-vaping advocates blame e-cigarette companies for targeting youth with “kid-friendly” flavours and say more restrictions and bans will curtail youth vaping. They’re wrong on both counts. It wasn’t e-cigarette makers that made vaping appealing to teenagers: it was anti-vaping advocates.

But why?

These ads are (often) professionally made and laid out. The campaigns are well funded and the use of multiple formats, including posters, tv ads and viral marketing, suggests the people behind them know what they are doing. 

So why are they using marketing concepts that could have the effect of promoting vaping amongst children?

If I was cynical, I’d suggest it could be to create a crisis that didn’t exist in order to:

  • to extract funding for more anti-vape campaigns
  • to create hysteria which could be used to justify a ban on a product which is overwhelmingly used by adult smokers to quit smoking.

Alternatively, there is a lack of awareness and common sense amongst campaigners, which is worrying considering that hundreds of millions of dollars have been funnelled to these groups.

If you don’t want children to vape, do what the UK’s done…

Youth vaping in the UK remains low

When used by children, it is often done so to quit smoking, and could be contributing to the dramatic fall in youth smoking rates in the UK. 

In fact, one survey by ASH couldn’t find one non-smoking child who vaped on a daily basis. 

So here’s some tips from the UK:  

1. Don’t make a big fuss about vaping. If kids don’t see vaping everywhere, awareness and interest will fall. 

2. Don’t make it cool – make it boring. Tell people it is used by grown-ups to quit smoking, or reduce the harms from smoking, not by cool sporty straight-A kids to do tricks. If you must have a picture, use a picture of a granny who has successfully switched to vaping after 40 years because of vaping. 

After all, how exciting would this video be to a kid?

3. For God’s sake, don’t tell kids it is popular, discreet and easy to use. 


How cigarette warnings help the tobacco industry (Our post referencing research by Martin Lindstrom which exposed how cigarette warnings stimulate the ‘craving spot’ in our brain)

Anti-smoking message that can backfire and make it harder for people to quit: London School of Economics, October 2010


Why some anti-smoking ads succeed and others backfire Science Daily, July 2007

2 thoughts on “How anti-vaping ads market vaping to teens”

  1. In depth as always, Fact of the matter is that it shouldn’t be of any relevance what advertisers do, heck you could have Mickey Mouse hitching a ride on the back of Road Runner exclaiming “…try vaping it’s real cool”.

    Vaping is in an age restricted category and can’t be sold to anyone underage.

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