November 22, 2013

Electronic Cigarettes and The Advertising Debate

Summit-Studios-fin-Cultivator-5.img_assist_custom-480x314
Summit-Studios-fin-Cultivator-5.img_assist_custom-480x314
I attended the inaugural Wells Fargo E-Cig Forum yesterday.  A great many topics were discussed from a great many points of view, but one seems a bit more controversial within the industry than many others — what exactly is acceptable advertising?

On one side, companies fear that aggressive advertising campaigns will draw the ire of anti-smoking zealots and regulators.  It will be entirely too easy to point to sexy ad models and celebrity endorsements and say See, these are obviously designed to appeal to teens!

On the other side are companies and even some public health experts that feel electronic cigarettes should be given every opportunity to overshadow and throttle the tobacco cigarette industry with the same kind of powerful ad campaigns they used to ensnare smokers in the first place.  Even if companies can’t yet say it without drawing unwanted attention from the FDA, experts believe e-cigs to be around 1% as harmful as tobacco cigarettes.  So many want to see the industry differentiate itself from smoking and advertising freedom is a great way to allow that.

But even the most pro-advertising companies will say that there must be a limit.  Where to draw the line is where things are already getting messy.

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DC81707
Take advertising by FIN for example (above and left).  The company has gone deep into a retro look that references smoking’s heyday.  Use of gorgeous models and slick photos has incited more than a few to turn against the company for acting too much like Big Tobacco (when it could get away with it, that is).  The concern is that the campaign will appeal to kids and make smoking cool again.

The arguments against advertising like this mostly stop there.  In a reasonable world where people can be held accountable for their own consumer habits, it’s hard to say that advertising requires strict supervision.  FIN’s ads appeal and speak primarily to adult smokers.  That what adults might find cool might overlap with what teens find cool is not their fault.

Companies like FIN may be advertising in a way that could appeal to teens, but they target adults with more than just the style of their ads.  There’s also a lot to be said for placement, and companies like FIN tend to place their ads where adults are the primary audience (usually around 85% at least).

But these ads still ruffle some feathers with regulators and even other e-cig industry folks (or maybe they’re just jealous).  The actions of a single visible e-cig company can quickly pull everyone in the industry into an unwanted debate that they’ve done nothing to place themselves in the middle of.

EJuiceMonkeys got pulled into the same kind of debate when 40 attorneys general signed a letter to the FDA urging action in light of youngster targeted advertising and increased trial among teens.  This was despite the company doing absolutely no off-site advertising, but the cartoon monkey logo was an easy target for zealots willing to use a lack of context to incriminate the company for targeting teens (which it certainly does not).

EJuiceMonkeys has since blacked out their mascot in silent protest of the ridiculous accusations.

Things aren’t much better in the UK where E-Lites had to spend 14 months going back and forth with regulators to design and launch a TV ad that was “acceptable” (left).  The resulting ad couldn’t show the product or say anything about it.  You can check out the impressive results right here.

Certainly the inability to show or talk about almost anything the company does led to a creative solution that you might not get otherwise, but is the line too far against in this case?

Of course, some will even consider the use of a baby in an ad for something that even looks like smoking as unacceptable.  But again, the ad is clearly appealing to adult smokers that know the feeling of missing out because of their habit.

Despite 14 months of work with regulators to make the ad acceptable, it was still banned after airing.

This certainly will not be an easy area to find middle ground on.  Advertising is likely to be a compromising tool in political discussions with regulators.  I’ll give up all TV and internet advertising in exchange for the ability to make salesonline, they might say.  But every company is going to advocate for advertising controls most beneficial to them.  Some companies want loose controls, while others prefer e-cigs be kept as tightly watched as tobacco.

Loose controls on advertising seem likely to be broadly beneficial to the industry.  It helps differentiate the world of e-cigs from the world of smoking.  It also, assuming companies can eventually say anything clear about the products, helps educate consumers on what they can expect from the devices.  Some public health professionals are even supporting aggressive and sexy advertising campaigns because it’s quickly looking like every new e-cig user is someone that much less likely to die a smoker’s death.

Advertising has always been a fickle beast.  What’s acceptable has changed tremendously in the last 40 years.  The entrance of electronic cigarettes into the market has been the first product in a long time to force a revisiting to old conversations about acceptable advertising.  The final results are anyone’s guess.

A robust advertising culture for the electronic cigarette industry could be the silver bullet that sends smoking to an early grave.  That’s poetic justice.

Should electronic cigarette advertising be banned?
Should electronic cigarette advertising be banned?
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Vaping-NOT-Smoking
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