Behind Juul’s Smoke Screen
By Kate Colwell
I love a good meme as much as the next person, especially a fan page of Sophie Turner’s relationship with her one true love, her vape pen. But as I dive into health coverage for gnovis, there is one couple I cannot stan: Juul and the American teenager.
The news around Juul Labs, the leading producer of electronic nicotine delivery devices, comes so quickly that it is difficult to process: 18 people have died in connection to vaping, or inhaling vaporized chemicals; more than 1080 people in 48 states and one U.S. territory have reported lung injury linked to vaping; 25 percent of high schoolers have recently vaped in 2019, twice as many as in 2018; Juul has cornered 75 percent of the e-cigarette market; the FDA, CDC, and the state of California are investigating Juul; three states have banned vaping products; Donald Trump’s administration is cracking down on e-cigarette flavors; Juul’s CEO Kevin Burns has resigned and been replaced with K.C. Crosthwaite, the chief growth officer at the leading cigarette company Altria, which recently bought over a third of Juul’s company; and the merger between tobacco giants Altria and Phillip Morris has been called off.
How are gnovis readers, supposed to parse it all? By fanning the proverbial smoke out of our eyes.
The main mission of Juul has always been to hook the most impressionable age group of our country on nicotine, reverse the decades-line decline in cigarette smoking, and create a generation of lifelong customers. And when the dust settles on the current flurry of news stories, Juul will still be on track to hit all of their goals.
So how did Juul attract a mass consumer base of young people before any regulation could hurt their business model? With an insidiously effective marketing plan.
- Create a cover story to justify a need for the product.
Juul executives knew that the U.S. government would eventually catch on to its efforts to capture a youth customer base and come knocking on their front door, so they built in a back door from the start. To sell any cure, you have to invent a disease, and for Juul, that was not the disease of addiction, but rather of social exclusion. You can hear the demon circling in any of Juul’s more recent advertisements, but the narrative was present from the start: cigarette smokers, victimized by Big Tobacco, have been left out in the cold by society. Harsh laws have cut them off from family and friends and excluded them from social spaces such as family gatherings and restaurants. But thank goodness, Juul offers them a cure to social exclusion: a product that alleviates their nicotine cravings while allowing them to spend more time around loved ones. These PR talking points are so cringe-worthy that they were recently parodied by Saturday Night Live.
While second-hand vapor is arguably less irritating than second-hand smoke, the alleviation of social stigma distracts from talking points that Juul wants to keep quiet. E-cigarettes have not been proven to be safer than cigarettes, and may lead to increased risk of smoking combustible cigarettes. Vapes have been linked to increased risk for seizures, heart attack, stroke, and lung problems. Juul pretends to be an opponent of Big Tobacco, but really, Juul is just the latest player in a history of industries that prey on nicotine dependence. Their spin messaging is so strong that even the Trump administration’s move to ban flavored e-cigarettes makes an exception for tobacco flavor.
- Invent a new culture around nicotine use.
In 2017, American smoking had steeply declined to an all-time low, with only 14 percent of Americans reporting habitual smoking, and only 10 percent of 18-24 year olds smoking. Instead of catering to a dwindling customer population, the minds behind Juul observed this trend and saw an opportunity to reinvent the nicotine industry to attract a customer base with nowhere to go but up in the addiction chain. To do so, they had to go beyond imitations of combustion cigarettes that had lost their social klout, or clunky vaporizers that would never be widely considered cool. They even had to invent a new word more exclusive than smoking or vaping; they created a culture of Juuling.
To kick-start this culture change in 2015, Juul Labs hired Cult Collective to design a “Vaporized” marketing campaign with bright colors, young models, and sex appeal. A study by Stanford University of Medicine found the first six months of this marketing campaign to be “patently youth oriented.” Over the next three years, Juul employed social media influencers to enhance the attractiveness of their brand on youth-dominated platforms like Instagram and YouTube. It was only after an April 2018 request by the FDA to examine Juul’s marketing tactics that in June 2018, the company revised its marketing plan. In November 2018, Juul Labs suspended its social accounts, but by then, seeded content had plenty of opportunities to grow and pollinate. At that point, the removal of accounts made Juul’s success look more native, and therefore less suspicious, to teen audiences, allowing the product of Juul’s campaign to appear more like an organic cultural shift.
- Design a product that teens would like.
Speaking of Stanford, the Juul e-cigarette was the brainchild of two product design students at Stanford University. Juul Labs has recruited leadership from Apple. The company knew the value to young people of creating a sleek, tech-savvy product architecture, and worked to design a product that met all of their customers’ needs. As such, we can interpret every design choice as intentional and strategic.
Juul devices look like USBs, which are familiar to students with electronic devices. They are short and slim enough to fit in the palm of a hand, to avoid the attention of teachers and school administrators. They use nicotine salts, which have a smoother hit than a combustible cigarette, a feature that would appeal more to new users than to veteran cigarette smokers who are more accustomed to throat irritation. Every pod of liquid that the Juul device vaporizes contains more nicotine than a cigarette would, a feature that helps hook new users quickly, but would not be necessary to attract a cigarette smoker who was already looking to switch. The exterior of Juuls, much like Apple music devices, are compatible with customizable skins, a feature that encourages young people to treat them as a fashion accessory. And the flavor pods initially offered by Juul, and soon afterwards offered by compatible internet retailers, primarily appealed to young tastes. It would take a great stretch of the imagination to believe that any of these features were included by accident, or targeted to older cigarette smokers, when designed by such a team. But without corporate documentation, the intended audience of these designs cannot be proven by skeptics such as myself.
- Target teens IRL.
Juul Labs claims that it only wished to market to adult smokers but the most damning piece of evidence against that claim is the most low-tech part of their marketing campaign. In July, the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee pored through 55,000 documents and “accused Juul Labs of ‘deploying a sophisticated program’ to target children and teenagers.” A division of Juul Labs paid schools and a summer camp to grant them access to give presentations directly to students as young as third grade. From what I can tell, these “healthy lifestyle plan” presentations at best told students to avoid Juul’s shiny products, which likely introduced the products to some students for the first time, and at worst, involved adults lying to students, saying that Juuls were safe for use.
On this point, Juul cannot hide behind passage of time or changing policies. These presentations, given or sponsored by Juul Labs, were still occurring in 2018, three years after their launch. The most insidious aspect of this arm of Juul’s marketing is its targeting of low-income students, those least likely to have digital devices on which to see Juul’s content, and most underserved by health providers. An e-cigarette provider should have no role in health education, just like Exxon Mobil has no place teaching environmental studies. No amount of investment by Juul Labs, in so-called public health will ever convince me that this company has been oblivious to its effects on children.
Juul Labs was worth $38 billion in December 2018. It’s difficult to anticipate what it will be worth after all government probes have been satisfied. But because Juul Labs invested in marketing teams that understood teen ecosystems, one thing is sure. For every entry point where the company infected young people with the idea of trying their product, that idea spread virally through hashtags, videos, and memes, and recirculated physically in schools and teenage social groups.
The only way to counter Juul Labs’ misinformation campaign is to beat at its own game, by taking health education to young people in the spaces that hold their attention. For example, a second-year resident at the University of Minnesota Medical School has taken to TikTok to explain how vaping damages lungs. Dr. Rose Marie Leslie has gained more than 217,000 followers; her video explainer breaking down an x-ray of a patient with vape-related lung disease has been favorited more than 622,000 times and provoked 6,800 comments. But those numbers pale in comparison to traction of vape influencers. Austin Lawrence, a vape shop owner who posts videos of tricks he does with vape smoke, bubbles, and lights has 3.5 million followers on Instagram and almost 3 million subscribers on YouTube.
It will take an intense campaign by messengers with klout in social media communities, in schools, and at social events to stigmatize Juul for young people. But even if health advocates succeed in dispelling all of Juul Labs’ smoke screens, they do so too late. The adolescent brains the company targeted are now hooked on their product for life.