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Mobile marketing: an emerging strategy to promote electronic nicotine delivery systems
  1. Jennifer Cantrell1,2,
  2. Ollie Ganz1,3,
  3. Brittany Emelle1,3,
  4. Rakiya Moore1,
  5. Jessica Rath1,2,
  6. Elizabeth C Hair1,2,
  7. Donna Vallone1,4
  1. 1 Evaluation Science and Research, Truth Initiative, Washington, USA
  2. 2 Department of Health, Behavior and Society, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, USA
  3. 3 Department of Prevention & Community Health, George Washington University Milken Institute of Public Health, Washington, USA
  4. 4 Global Institute of Public Health, New York University, New York, USA
  1. Correspondence to Jennifer Cantrell, Evaluation Science and Research, Truth Initiative, 900 G St NW, Fourth Floor, Washington, DC 20001, USA; jcantrell{at}

Statistics from


Recent years have seen significant increases in both traditional and on-line advertising of electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS).1–5 There has been little research, however, on how ENDS are advertised on mobile channels.

Mobile advertising is a rapidly growing platform and primarily consists of paid advertisements on mobile-optimized websites or smartphone applications (apps), which often appear as mobile banners or videos.6 7 Recent data from 2016 reveal that Americans spend over 3 hours per day on mobile devices8 and that mobile ownership is most prevalent among certain groups, such as young adults.9 Individuals may be exposed to mobile advertisements based on websites they visit and apps used, with potential exposure increasingly dependent on digital activity patterns (ie, the types of websites visited, the types of search terms used) captured via commercial tracking methods. Global mobile advertising expenditures are projected to exceed $100 billion in 2016 and to double by 2019.8

Given recent increases in ENDS marketing and exponential surges in mobile device ownership and use, this study aims to examine the characteristics and content of ENDS advertising on the mobile platform.


Using Competitrack, an advertising service that systematically collects data related to top market US advertisements, we reviewed mobile ENDS advertisements and associated metadata on advertisers, brand, number of observations and appearance on a website or mobile application (app) for a full year, from January 2015 through December 2015. In the first three quarters of 2015, Competitrack monitored 107 mobile apps and 43 mobile-optimized websites to capture mobile advertising. In the final quarter of 2015, Competitrak increased its mobile monitoring coverage to 1000 apps and 2500 websites (which also included the apps and sites previously covered). Ads are captured by software monitoring of top ad-supported mobile-enabled websites and apps, as determined by sites and apps with high levels of traffic and time spent.

We examined advertisement characteristics and themes using a methodology from prior studies.10–12 Two independent coders assessed each advertisement for (1) use of health-related themes (ie, alternative to cigarettes, reduced harm); (2) non-health related attributes (ie, technology focus, romantic); (3) people portrayed in the ad (ie, young person/older person/unclear)); (4) financial incentives (ie, coupons or other price discounts); (5) whether flavoured products were featured; (6) whether the ad took users to a landing page; (7) type of landing page and (8) whether the landing page provided financial incentives. Disagreements were settled by a third coder.


A total of 34 unique mobile ENDS advertisements were identified during 2015. The majority of these advertisements were for NJOY (11) (figure 1), blu (5), Pax (5) and Juul (5). Other brands included Ploom (4), Apollo (1), GreenSmoke (1), MarkTen (1) and V2 (1). All ads were featured on mobile websites and no ads were identified on mobile applications.

Figure 1

NJOY e-cigarette advertisement in 2015.

Most of the 34 unique advertisements (94%) direct consumers to the product’s landing page, and 15% feature a financial incentive, such as a coupon. Among ads with landing pages, a large majority (85%) direct viewers to brand websites where further discounts are available, while 15% are focused on retail stores. For the latter, three ads provide printable coupons to be used at retail outlets and two link to a locator for nearby retail stores selling the brand. A total of 53% of all advertisements compare the product to cigarettes (eg, ‘so close to a cigarette, it’s easy to forget’), and 18% promote the product as a replacement for cigarettes. One-third of the advertisements highlight the product as being ‘cool’ or ‘high tech’ and 29% feature flavoured e-cigarettes.

Although there were 34 unique advertisements, the individual ads appeared on the mobile platform for a total of 633 observations. Since 74% (n=468) of the 633 observations were for Juul, we conducted further examination of these ads. Pax Labs, a San Francisco based manufacturer, launched the Juul vapourizer in 2015.

We identified five unique Juul mobile advertisements. Of the five advertisements, three highlighted the product’s high tech design, one focused on the quality of the product, one featured a financial incentive (ie, 25% off coupon) and two featured a young person (figure 2). Four ads linked to a product-landing page and four compared the product to cigarettes, using phrases such as ‘smoking evolved’ (figure 3).

Figure 2

Juul e-cigarette advertisement in 2015.

Figure 3

Juul e-cigarette advertisement in 2015.


While limitations of this convenience sample preclude the ability to provide representative estimates of the prevalence of ENDS’ mobile marketing characteristics, findings indicate that ENDS companies are comparing the products with conventional cigarettes; providing coupons for on-line or retail purchase; and driving consumers to on-line websites with additional discounts. Tobacco industry analysts have noted that mobile tobacco-related advertising has many benefits, including increasing retailer traffic, reducing advertising costs and targeting young adult consumers.13 Cigarette manufacturers, such as Altria and RJ Reynolds, have begun to use such strategies via mobile advertising and have noted an increase in cigarette sales.14 15

The focus on high tech features of ENDS products, particularly for Juul, combined with an emphasis on flavours may be a strategy to encourage experimentation by youth and new users. Prior evidence suggests an association between cigarette product and marketing innovations and youth smoking behaviour.16–18 Juul, which was coined the ‘iPhone of ecigs’ by Men’s Fitness and Wired magazine,19 has been marketed as a technology-oriented brand and is shaped to look like a sleek USB port. Studies indicate that young people have the highest rates of adoption of new technology.20 21 Further, recent cross-sectional research has found that certain aspects of technophilia (ie, use of more electronic media technologies such as smartphones, laptops, etc) are associated with ENDS awareness and trial among youth.22 A marketing emphasis on ENDS flavours may further draw youth and young adult experimenters.23–28 Given the strong appeal of flavours and technological innovations among younger populations, careful surveillance of marketing as well as usage patterns is needed to monitor exposure and impact of such advertising among youth.

Competitrak provides benefits for surveillance, including collection of advertising across many channels. For mobile surveillance, current limitations include the lack of mobile advertising spend data and a limited sample of websites and apps monitored. The service also does not collect data from private social media posts and does not provide information on overall reach or individual exposure to advertising. Although not comprehensive, the service provides insight into how products are being promoted on the mobile platform.


Findings from this study indicate that e-cigarette brands are being advertised on mobile platforms, with ads largely focused on driving traffic to e-cigarette brand websites, providing coupons and links to discounts and showcasing product attributes that may appeal to youth, such as advanced technology and flavours. It is important to note that e-cigarette companies are currently under no legal obligation to screen for age on product websites, as are cigarette companies. It remains unclear which populations are reached by mobile ENDS advertising and what the impact may be. Given marketers’ increasing sophistication in mobile targeting of potential customers,29 research and policy strategies are needed to effectively monitor the spend, characteristics, content, reach and impact of mobile ENDS marketing. Improved surveillance along with new tools for digital monitoring are key for informing policies restricting tobacco marketing from young people.



  • Competing interest None declared.

  • Contributors JC, OG, BE and RM conceptualised and wrote the article. OG, BE and RM analysed the data. JR, EH and DV provided feedback on the article.

  • Funding This work was funded by Truth Initiative.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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