Miley Cyrus. Bella Hadid. Sophie Turner. These are just a few celebrities who are known for their vaping habits. But these habits aren’t just a personal choice – they fit into a larger picture of vaping companies using celebrities and influencers to appeal to young consumers.
Although the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 places strict regulations on how tobacco products can be marketed, the vaping industry has raised questions about marketing in the digital era.
Vaping pioneer JUUL has been the focus of mounting legal action that questions the company’s efforts to recruit celebrities and influencers to promote their e-cigarette devices across social media. A lawsuit filed by the state of Massachusetts’ Attorney General, Maura Healey on February 12, 2020, alleges that the company attempted to develop a roster of influencers to promote their device. Its target list – to whom they sent free e-cigarettes – included Tavi Gevinson of Rookie magazine, Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Jennifer Lawrence, Cara Delevingne — and teens with big social media audiences such as Luka Sabbat and Claudia Oshry.
JUUL Activity on Instagram
JUUL has been characterized as the first “digitally native tobacco company.” This title is fitting considering their adoption of social media and influencer marketing. Starting in 2015, the company spent more than $1 million to market the product online, including paid advertising on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Between March 1 and May 15 of 2018 alone, there were 14,838 individual posts, including those by JUUL’s official account.
The activity included lifestyle-related content (57%) and youth-related content such as slang, memes, celebrity references, and school-related posts and overt promotional content (34%) that engaged users, prompting them to tag friends. The effect of these posts has been to create social norms around these products and romanticize JUUL as a lifestyle choice.
However, amidst controversy over their marketing practices, JUUL shut down its Instagram and YouTube accounts in November of 2018 and reoriented its Twitter to focus on corporate communications. Much of the damage has been done, though – as a product, JUUL currently maintains an active presence online.
In a report from researcher Robert Jackler at Stanford University, it was found that eight months after JUUL ended its promotional postings, community posting actually accelerated, doubling to over half a million. Even more notable is the fact that posts demonstrated extremely high engagement at a rate of 94x greater than those with passive viewership.
The Reach of Influencers
Celebrities and influencers have a huge role in a product as lifestyle positioning. Although the distinction between celebrities and influencers used to be greater, it has merged in recent years as mainstream actors, musicians, and models take on a greater presence in the social content creation space.
Both have a huge impact on the market share of Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and other social channels. Instagram influencer marketing alone is an almost $2 billion dollar industry and has a major cache with younger audiences. 70% of teens trust influencers more than traditional celebrities, likely due to the high contact between them and the online world.
JUUL rejects that its ads ever were directed at a young audience. “We have never marketed to youth and we never will,” the company responded in an LA Times article in September. “Our marketing efforts exclusively feature adult smokers who share their personal experiences about switching to JUUL products from combustible cigarettes — all conveyed in a style, tone, and message tailored to current adult smokers.”
However, those in the anti-tobacco space offer a different opinion. That JUUL ceased its social media activity doesn’t matter, according to Jackler. “The JUUL hashtag lives on. It’s immortal. It’s still viral in peer-to-peer teen promotion.”
Amidst the lawsuits, other calls for regulation of JUUL and other e-cigarette manufacturers’ marketing have increased. “Strong regulatory action is needed to restrict promotional efforts for e-cigarette products, particularly within social media platforms where youth and young adult participation is high,” researchers put forth in an article published in Tobacco Control. “[These] results can inform policymakers on how social media can influence youth risk behavior and identify strategies to counter digital marketing for JUUL and other popular e-cigarette brands.”