By Ashley Jones
The advertiser’s dream: audience targeting. It’s what Facebook, Google and, in 2019, pretty much every digital platform in-between has gifted us. With a few clicks of a mouse, we can target our campaigns with hyper-precision: gender, age, demographic, geographic location. Even specific interests of those best suited to receive our ads. It’s cost-effective, and it increases the conversions we need to achieve our campaign goals.
But we don’t just target digitally — we target through our creative strategies as well. We target our ideal demographic through our creative assets in terms of our choice of colors, the age, and ethnicity of models or influencers, the copy, the media placement. The list goes on.
But targeting an audience is only half the battle of campaign success. The true heartbeat of any campaign is, and always will be authenticity. You can meet or exceed every objective of your campaign strategy, but if your messaging is misguided, fictitious or deceitful, your credibility and reputation can be tarnished. Negative backlash can connote your overall brand, sales can drop, and, in more extreme cases, legal action can be taken.
More importantly, the well-being of your audience can be at stake.
The Juul Example
Recently, Bloomberg published an article regarding the infamous Juul and a lawsuit taken against Juul Labs Inc. and Philip Morris USA Inc. for “illegally marketing nicotine-delivery devices to minors and deceiving consumers about the risks of vaping.”
Not long after, The New York Times published a piece about the FDA’s warning letter to Juul for the illegal marketing of their product as “safer than traditional tobacco cigarettes.”
If you haven’t heard of the Juul, no doubt you’ve seen the sleek USB-looking e-cig in the hand of a college-age kid, or the vapor clouds at bus stops, on the street, even in the grocery store. It’s the latest “alternative” to cigarettes. And it’s gained momentum, fast. Particularly, among Gen Z – many of whom are kids not old enough to even legally purchase. Paradoxical; considering the Juul’s “goal” is to “improve the lives of existing adult smokers.”
Remember That Scene in Mad Men?
But it’s no secret that the tobacco and nicotine industries have a convoluted advertising history.
In 1937, Camel ran an advertising campaign supporting the idea that their cigarettes “aided digestion.”
In 1949, Viceroys cigarettes deployed an advertising campaign that claimed your dentist thinks “smoking isn’t all that bad for you.”
In 1951, L&M claimed their filters were “just what the doctors ordered.”
These are just a few examples of the vintage advertising campaigns that claimed cigarettes could achieve great feats — like helping you keep a slender figure, curb your candy cravings and cure a common cold. With a quick Google search, you can find countless slogans, billboards, and advertorials perpetuating the health benefits of cigarettes — unsupported by facts.
But there’s no denying these ads were, well, really successful. Although they didn’t have digital targeting at their fingertips, thanks to the introduction of color print, tobacco companies were able to create campaigns and cartons that were aesthetically pleasing to target mothers, athletes, and young adults. They constructed a trendy lifestyle, even fashionable – if you didn’t smoke a square, you were a square. They included beautiful women and handsome men. Their slogans purported health benefits, self-image improvement and normalized the act of smoking.
As suspicions began to arise about the real health risks of smoking and its link to cancer and other diseases in the ‘50s, the ads began to reassure consumers by featuring doctors, dentists as well as popular actors and athletes, like Ronald Reagan and Willie Mays who swore by cigarettes, thus appealing to consumers’ trust. And consumers were dedicated to their particular brand of smokes.
By 1953, 47% of American adults were smoking cigarettes.
After the U.S. Surgeon General’s first Smoking and Health report were published in 1964, there was a steep decline in the smoking rate of adults.
Not a Solution, but a Replacement
Despite the radical decline of smoking in recent years, “vaping” has found its place. But not with the community of adult smokers who have been addicted to nicotine for years, or those seeking to kick the habit to try to combat the long-term health tolls their bodies have taken. Since the Juul’s inception in 2015, vaping among 12th-graders increased from 16.3% to 26.7%.
For a company dedicated to curbing the already-existing habit of adult smokers, Juul’s targeting didn’t quite seem to align. Their initial ads were bright and colorful and depicted attractive 20-somethings enjoying the pleasures of life while vaping. These ads were scattered along with metro areas and highways, in addition to social media platforms with trending hashtags. The company also tapped dominantly millennial and Gen Z demographics social influencers for blogs and Instagram posts. And the campaign performance has been incredibly successful: teen exposure to these ads is every seven in 10. As a result, 27.5% of high school students and over five million youth are current e-cigarette users.
Juul didn’t appeal to the middle-aged parents trying to quit for the sake of their children or elderly smokers diagnosed with smoking-related diseases looking to finally put the habit to rest. In fact, they’ve done just the opposite. They’ve placed addictive nicotine products in the hands of people who have never touched a cigarette. Instead of educational campaigns that expressed the dangers of smoking and how the Juul could help wean cigarette use, their campaigns repeated the tobacco industry’s past of glamorization.
Thanks to recent backlash, Juul has pulled many of its original ads and replaced them with commercials that explore existing smokers’ experience with “making the switch.” However, this has done little to curb the radical increase of vaping, according to The New York Times.
Considering traditional smoking’s negative stigma, and compared to the harsh smell of tobacco, it’s understandable how it may be hard for younger users to believe that the mango smelling nicotine within their dainty, decorated little devices could have the same health repercussions as cigarettes. And true, scientists are still learning about long-term health effects. But, will it be too late?
After all, there are now hundreds of cases of curious vaping-related diseases. And the toll for vaping-related deaths has risen to seven. While none of these can be linked to one specific source, it’s enough to heighten concern and scrutiny.
Learn from the Past, Old Sport
As communicators and advertisers, we hold great power and responsibility can be heavy. We influence the world down highways, on television and phone screens. We shape how individuals feel about a company and its products, what individuals purchase and what individuals believe.
As our capabilities continue to advance, we must be as transparent and genuine as possible as we approach our campaigning and the way the world perceives the messaging we share. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. It’s a dangerous game we play – don’t cheat.