Today’s radio ads for the popular e-cigarette Juul aren’t nearly as catchy as the real-cigarette ads of my distant youth.
In the Mad Men era, by God, they knew how to write a cigarette ad. Spoiler: It was all in the jingle.
“Tobacco tastes best / When the filter’s recessed / Smoke Parliament.”
“You get a lot to like with a Marlboro / Filter, flavor, flip-top box.”
“Winston tastes good / Like a [clap! clap!] cigarette should.”
Okay, enough nostalgia. In any case, Juul radio ads don’t bother me because of their artistic deficiency.
They bother me because they exist.
Back in 1970, Congress passed and President Richard Nixon signed legislation banning cigarette ads from radio or television, on the sensible premise that the freedom of speech clause in the Bill of Rights doesn’t cover the paid promotion of an addictive product with a decent chance of killing its users.
While there was debate over details, the ban itself was widely embraced. It passed the Senate by 70–7.
One of the “no” votes came from Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina, where tobacco is very big business.
The late “Senator Sam,” by coincidence, is also remembered for saying folksy things like, “I’m just a simple country lawyer, but . . . .” when he felt some proposal or action offended common sense.
So in honor of the late Senator Sam — who, by the way, was anything but a “simple country lawyer” — I’d like to say that I’m just a simple former newspaper writer, but I don’t quite understand why we still ban cigarette ads, but now allow advertising for a product that’s selling the exact same addiction: nicotine.
Okay, it’s true that cigarettes contain bonus carcinogens, like tar. But what hooks both cigarette smokers and “vapers” is the nicotine. Juuls come in electronic “pods” and one pod delivers about the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.
What am I missing here?
You can still get addicted. It’s still harmful to your health, especially if you’re a teenager, because nicotine can affect a developing brain.
FDA surveys show that about 3.6 million middle and high school students have vaped in any given 30 days. That includes 20% of high school students, up from about 11% a year earlier. Happily, most of them are not regulars. Yet. But that’s a whole lot of nicotine consumption and these days most of that comes from Juul.
Since Juul was founded in 2015, offering exotic flavors like creme brulee, cool coconut and mango plus twice the nicotine of other e-cigarettes, the company has rolled to a 70% market share and become the generic term for its product, like Kleenex.
The fact that teenagers clearly are a major component of this meteoric rise is especially interesting because Juul founders Adam Bowen and James Monsees swear they never wanted a nickel of teenage money.
Their goal with Juul, they have said repeatedly, was to create a tobacco product less harmful than traditional cigarettes. Their dream customer, they say, is a lifelong adult smoker who can’t quit, but can now decrease his or her health risks dramatically by switching from Marlboro to Juul.
Not that Juul was conceived as a public service, exactly. Last year Forbes magazine pegged its value at $16 billion and estimated that Bowen and Monsees are worth about $730 million apiece.
In any case, it’s true that someone who switches from Kent to Juul inhales fewer dangerous substances, though actual health data on e-cigarettes is scarce.
Conversely, it may also be true that people who see Juuling as a kinder, gentler tobacco habit could, once their nicotine addiction is entrenched, decide they want the full-on kick of cigarettes. We don’t have any real data on possibilities like that yet, either.
We do know that if more teenagers get addicted to nicotine, it would undermine the slow, painstaking progress made over a half century through health campaigns pointing out the dangers of tobacco.
So it would be reassuring if Juul were, true to its word, trying to keep its product away from teenagers.
Unfortunately, a couple of things call Senator Sam’s Simple Country Lawyer standard to mind.
Juul’s first ads, less than three years ago, featured beautiful young people romantically vaping together. Today, the company says it uses only models over 35.
YouTube remains densely populated with people who sure look like teenagers talking about the joys of Juul, frequently while laughing off the health warning on the pod package. The company says it doesn’t like this, but can’t stop it.
Juul originally came in flavors like crème brulee, mango, fruit and cool cucumber. I’m guessing that most adult smokers trying to quit aren’t looking for something that tastes like dessert. They’re looking for something that tastes like tobacco. Teenagers, on the other hand, have insatiable sweet teeth. Juul, under FDA pressure, recently renamed some of those flavors. Crème brulee is now just creme.
There’s also this. The primary target of almost all marketing campaigns is the young, whose tastes and brand loyalties are being shaped. They’re the ones advertisers sweat to seduce.
Juul ads send the unsubtle word that despite all those anti-tobacco public service ads you’ve heard all your life, this stuff lets you enjoy nicotine without that nagging specter of killing yourself.
I’m not a teenager today, so I can’t gauge whether Juul hits the elusive sweet spot of “cool” in teen culture. Nodding one more time to Senator Sam, the numbers suggest it has.
In the prehistoric years before I became a teenager, I heard cigarette ads constantly on radio and television. I loved the Kool penguins and the Camel cavalcade, and I could sing all those jingles.
I also hated cigarette smoke, because my mother and grandmother smoked and it was in the air all the time.
Still, when I hit 12 or so, my friend Charles and I — like millions of other adolescents — went for it. We liberated a few cigarettes from Mrs. Blixt, who lived next door, and lit up behind the garage. It tasted as bad as the smoke smelled. I never smoked one again. Charles smoked for more than 30 years.
I’m pretty sure that if I had grown up a generation later, when the only cigarette messages in the media told me they were awful and would kill me, I would have been less likely to sample. But being of that age, and not being as smart as I thought I was, I would also have noticed if some voice were whispering in my other ear, “Sure, cigarettes aren’t good for you, kid. But these aren’t cigarettes. These are fine.”
Fun fact: That’s exactly what they said about heroin when it was developed in the late 19th century as a “safe substitute” for morphine. Now Juul ain’t heroin. We just might want to remember that pharmaceutical expectations can be misleading.