How savvy marketing made vaping into a youth sensation
17 May 2023
Pop-up stores, paid celebrities and influencers, music festivals, and collaborations with artists and designers are all employed to promote e-cigarettes, writes Marilyn Giroux.
Opinion: Marketing has played a big part in the transition of vaping from a tool to quit smoking to an addictive trend.
When vaping was commercially introduced around 2003, it was perceived as a great innovation that would help people quit smoking.
However, by 2010, vape companies realised a considerable opportunity: consumers wanted more from electronic cigarettes.
These companies started to create more attractive products featuring stylish designs and broader ranges of flavours, including “cotton candy” and “bubble gum”.
Some also enabled vapes to produce bigger “clouds” – the plumes of smoke vapes emit, enhancing the experience for cloud-loving vapers.
The small size of some of the vapes, some resembling USB devices, and their bright colours also proved particularly appealing to young people.
Companies continued to make the products more appealing, utilising the same positioning playbook and gimmicks once used by big tobacco companies to hook people on cigarettes.
In the past, the tobacco industry achieved considerable success by utilising vivid packaging, attention-grabbing designs, and animated characters to promote their brands, and the vaping industry employed similar tactics through more modern channels.
Vaping companies utilised promotions, social media influencers, retail environments and recreational venues, and sponsorships for music festivals and sports events, not only to attract smokers attempting to quit, but also to establish a fresh market.
Employing strategies such as emotional appeal (for example, friendship, rebellion, or success), celebrity endorsements, models, social media influencers, and animation on social media platforms can be incredibly successful in captivating younger audiences – a fact that the e-cigarette industry is fully cognisant of.
They utilise various techniques on platforms like TikTok to allure young people, prompt their followers to engage and share their content, and ultimately, to acquire their products.
The market hasn't been hindered by strict regulations, which has helped to facilitate the proliferation of vaping. As with all new products, governments need time to understand and monitor the health effects and other aspects before implementing more suitable regulations around sale and usage.
In the meantime, recent surveys of young individuals and teenagers reveal that an increasing number of non-smokers are now turning to vaping, necessitating a more proactive approach to address this growing issue.
Indeed, for the past few years, there has been growing apprehension that the promotion of e-cigarettes is primarily geared towards teenagers who have never smoked, rather than those seeking to quit smoking.
The regulation of e-cigarettes differs considerably around the globe, ranging from outright bans (such as India) to being available only on prescription (Australia) and being sold as a consumer product without restrictions (Europe, US).
The regulations in New Zealand, such as the Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products Vaping Amendment Act have limited some marketing techniques of traditional media advertising, price promotions and point-of-sale displays.
However, with the increasing limitations on vaping advertising, firms have devised innovative strategies.
Pop-up stores, events, music festivals, and collaborations with artists and designers are all employed to promote e-cigarettes, with extensive online promotion via social media, paid celebrities and influencers.
The current problem is that habits and perceptions take a considerable amount of time to form. Individuals, especially younger generations, perceive vaping not only as a safer alternative to cigarettes, but also as a cool and trendy lifestyle and recreational activity.
Big Tobacco has a long history of embedding itself as social artefacts and exploiting regulatory wiggle rooms for gains.
When you combine this with the constant introduction of new and developing nicotine and tobacco products by companies that work to attract consumers on a continuous basis, these trends are far from disappearing, and they present a significant challenge for the implementation of measures to reduce tobacco use and its harmful effects on public health for good.
Dr Marilyn Giroux is a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland Business School.
This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.
It was first published by Stuff in a number of print publications and online at waikatotimes.co.nz
Sophie Boladeras, media adviser
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