Truth Initiative, a prominent tobacco control group in the United States, released a study about Juul-related posts on Instagram earlier this month.
“Findings reveal a proliferation of JUUL-related content on Instagram, which focused on product promotion and nicotine and addiction that included youth culture and lifestyle appeals,” conclude the researchers. Lauren Czaplicki and her team additionally go forth in recommending that any future marketing regulatory action, “should focus on restricting promotional efforts for e-cigarette products, particularly on social media platforms where young people are a primary audience.”
According to the study, the methodology focused on an inquiry method that utilized keyword research to break down the popularity of hashtags related to Juul and other pod-based vaping products. Through Instagram’s advertising platform, the search analyzed thousands of posts from March 2018 to May 2018 using a combination of what the researchers claim to include machine learning methods, keyword research, and human coding. Ultimately, the end goal, according to the researchers, was to find content that features product promotion that somehow glamorizes nicotine use addiction and youth culture.
The results to this study found that out of 14,838 Juul-related Instagram posts made by 5,201 users, about one-third of them were promotional in nature, only 11 percent contained nicotine and addiction information, and over half reportedly appealed to “youth culture” or youth lifestyle with hashtags like #juulbuzz or #nichead searched.
While these results are indeed an interesting development in the research related to marketing e-cigarette and vaping products, the researchers have several flaws built into this study that are based on a shared mentality with regulators.
The devil is in the details
Naturally, much of what the study, and others like it, reveal is a lack of understanding related to social media marketing and differentiating target audiences. First, let’s consider some simple points.
I searched the hashtags #juul, #juulbuzz, #nichead, and several others that the study encompassed. Keep in mind that my little analysis is based on recent posts and posts traced back to the baseline timeframe for the study.
#nichead, for example, only features 416 posts versus what I would consider the flagship hashtag keyword, #juul, which has over 526,250 posts at the time of publication.
#nichead posts trace back to April 2013, which such posts aren’t even nicotine or vaping related and originate from personal user accounts.
However, upon further review of the hashtag, it appears that anti-vaping content dominates most of the posts found. The Truth Initiative bills itself as one of the leading tobacco control groups focused on curtailing youth tobacco use and nicotine addiction. To do so, the Truth Initiative has embarked on several media campaigns (at times questionable) that are intended for consumption by younger age groups. Sticking with this operation method, the initiative hosts and maintains the @nicheadnation anti-vaping meme account on Instagram.
Posts from the account date back to February 28, 2018, right before the baseline timeframe for the initiative’s latest study. Much of what is posted include dated memes characterizing vaping as a negative trend in social culture, ultimately serving as an influencer account with roughly less than 10,000 followers which include bots and other anti-vaping influencers.
As with other analyses of the marketing strategies firms like Juul have employed, the insinuation remains the same: vaping companies are targeting kids just because they advertise on a social network that is popular with younger generations.
In 2015, Juul launched with the #Vaporized campaign featuring social media content that shows younger-looking people, all adults, enjoying the device. Juul additionally spent a few thousand dollars on influencers to promote their smoke-free product. However, this is the case for any product or service entering an initial launch phase that is intended to be used by millennials and Gen Z’ers.
Marketers of any product or service realize that the marketing trends for these younger groups are imperative to understand. One analysis in AdWeek found that members of Generation Z or “post-millennials” (e.g., those born between 1996 or 1997 and the 2000s) rely on marketing trends that differ from the older millennial group.
For example, Gen Z’ers are more likely to utilize social media platforms such as YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram provided the generation group’s collective interest in bite-sized visual media content. Millennials are likely to use these platforms but are prone to use Facebook and Twitter more.
Either way, the question regarding influencers is ultimately the same. Keeping in mind that influencers for both generation groups have distinct practices and typography, the basis for using an influencer as a marketing channel for a company is the same.
Data shows that millennials and post-millennials are going to rely on influencers to inform their consumer trends as it relates to purchasing products or services. By no surprise, influencer marketing has become a vital aspect of several e-commerce firms’ social media strategies. Whether it is the newest detox herbal supplement that is peddled by an Instagram model or it is the use of a new financial planning app targeted at more established millennials, the concept of conversion is driven by the success of influence campaigns that deliver a sense of urgency to purchase or adopt a particular product, service, or associated lifestyle persona around such products.
The same goes for vaping products. During the #Vaporized campaign, the influencers were able to present Juul as a refreshing take on nicotine delivery. Something that wasn’t shrouded in stigma, tar, and death. Naturally, the firm brought in lively models in youthful settings to promote the product. While the campaign does hold some similarities to the “Marlboro man” era, the distinguishing characteristic of the campaign was to sell Juul as not only a nicotine delivery method but as a need-to-have technology accessory for everyday life. The company’s ads, while cringe-worthy to the highest degree, were targeted for legal nicotine consumers in the youngest possible age bracket, 18 to 24 years.
Unfortunately, marketing for this age bracket is challenging because some minors who might be aged 16 or 17 years may find a shared identity with the youngest cohort of the targeted legal age group. However, there is genuinely no suggestion that Juul, a nicotine device made as a smoking alternative, was ever intended to be marketed to children. Youth uptake trends, while debatable, are just an unintended consequence. By no means does this justify youth vaping, it merely serves as a case of how influencer marketing on open platforms like Instagram will render before the eyes of underaged users.
Most youth who engage in vaping do so through real-life personal channels like friends. A case can be made that the digital impressions of any potential posts impact minors on social media, but that mere fact disconnects the act of purchase as an underaged individual enters a store that fails to ID all customers or beats an e-commerce website’s age verification filter.
This, however, does not mean that influencer marketing for vaping and e-cigarette products should be banned from social media networks through regulation and legislation. Mainly, the case of Juul in 2015 was a failure in defining their audience, keyword research, and completing holistic tests on all of their advertisement variants.
Regulatory responses to influencer marketing
Presently, the only justification that could be identified to further restrict this form of marketing for e-cigarettes and vaping is more a failure to comply with marketing regulations and risk communication requirements.
Under federal law, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has the ultimate power in regulating the communication messages found in tobacco and deemed products. E-cigarettes, vapes, and liquid nicotine fall under this enforcement purview.
The FDA mandates that any form of advertisement for an e-cigarette must feature the necessary risk communication messaging, especially for social media posts and digital ads. This means that influencers, shops, and manufacturers must place the FDA’s warning label with the ad, regardless of the form of media.
Failure to do this recently prompted the FDA to warn several firms that engage in influencer marketing to ensure that any products that are marketed on their behalf include the legally-mandated inscription, or a variation of it, reading, “WARNING: This product contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical.”
As with the researchers in the initiative’s latest study, there is still a misunderstanding related to influencer marketing based on a shared sentiment. FDA with other regulatory agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission regulates all aspects of a manufacturer’s packaging configuration, associated marketing plan, and the channels through which their products are advertised. However, risk communication requirements do not allow companies to create marketing strategies that accurately characterize their products, functions, and intentions.
Agencies should adopt guidance on influencer marketing that holds companies and the government accountable to their respective degrees. Companies should train their marketing teams and stables of influencers in how to properly communicate product in a compliant fashion. FDA and its partner agencies should be incentivizing communication about all aspects of nicotine use while additionally pushing legislators in Congress to amend existing laws to offer more flexibility for e-cigarette manufacturers and shop owners.
Just think about balance
This conclusion should also correspond to how researchers and critics review influencer marketing trends related to products like Juul. Researchers can accuse e-cigarette companies of marketing to children because they posted a few advertisements on a social media platform all they want. Such a process, however, misses the mark when there appears to be a misunderstanding of marketing practices for firms active in the e-commerce channel.
Again, minors should not use Juul devices or other nicotine delivery methods. The best approach for a balanced response is through private-public coordination in implementing balanced age verification methods for e-commerce sales and novel age-verification technologies in brick-and-mortar stores.
Remember, the industry has no intention to market to children. E-cigarettes and vaping products have been scientifically proven to be safer than combustible cigarettes. Governments in places like the U.K. even promote these products as smoking cessation aids. Assuming that companies, who have built up brands that appeal to a large swath of legal consumers, want to peddle age-restricted products to an unlawful class of consumers is irrational.