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Ad Watch: ‘Unstoppable’ VUSE Alto TV Spot Closely Mirrors ‘Nicotine Addiction Checks’ on TikTok
  1. Kristy L Marynak,
  2. Meghan Moran
  1. Health, Behavior, and Society, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland, USA
  1. Correspondence to Kristy L Marynak, Health, Behavior, and Society, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, MD 21205-2103, USA; kmaryna1{at}jhu.edu

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A television (TV) advertisement launched in Spring 2020 for Reynolds American’s VUSE e-cigarette, titled ‘Unstoppable,’ features VUSE Alto devices undulating in colour-coordinated ribbons or waves around a neon-lit room (see figure 1).1 A hip-hop jingle accompanies the visuals with the chorus: ‘Unstoppable! Who us? YES! Passion, CHECK! Drive, CHECK! How much you gonna give? That’s a hundred percent. Gonna take it to the top, won’t settle for less.’

Figure 1

Screen capture of VUSE Alto devices arranged in colour-coordinated ribbons.

This ad is notable for its similarities to ‘Nicotine Addiction Check’ memes on the short-form video sharing app TikTok (see figures 2 and 3).2 ,3 These user-generated videos have been popular since at least late 20194 and frequently feature spent e-cigarette devices and liquid refills (often Puff Bars and JUUL pods) arranged in colour-coordinated rows, cascading into a trash receptacle. The videos are accompanied by a song that begins ‘Ayo! NICOTINE ADDICTION CHECK!’, followed by a hip-hop beat with percussive coughing and hacking sounds that seems to satirise the respiratory harms of e-cigarette use. The temporality of the VUSE ad’s debut (ie, months after the emergence of Nicotine Addiction Check memes), similarities in visual content and approach, and its inclusion and repetition of the word ‘check’ warrant concern that tobacco industry advertising may be exploiting social media content generated by young people that normalises nicotine addiction.

Figure 2

Screen capture of TikTok Nicotine Addiction Check depicting colour-coordinated devices cascading into a box.

Figure 3

Screen capture of TikTok Nicotine Addiction Check with colour-coordinated e-cigarettes cascading into a trashcan.

E-cigarette use among young people is a public health concern because nicotine is addictive and can harm adolescent brain development; the long-term health effects of prolonged e-cigarette use are unknown.5 6 Nicotine salt-based e-cigarettes, including VUSE Alto and JUUL, enable nicotine to be palatable at higher levels, potentially increasing abuse liability.7 TikTok could be an important platform for monitoring e-cigarette use behaviours and brand preferences among youth because the majority of TikTok’s 41 million active users are youth and young adults, including an estimated 41% ages 18–24 and 27% ages 13–17.8 Nicotine addiction and vaping are popular topics of TikTok videos; as of August 2020, videos tagged #nicotineaddictioncheck had 12.2 million views, #nicotinecheck had 43.5 million and #vape had 1.7 billion. This content, specifically Nicotine Addiction Check memes, may perpetuate the epidemic of e-cigarette use among young people by providing peer validation of e-cigarette use and trivialising nicotine addiction.

User-generated videos featuring specific e-cigarette brands are a source of free advertising that likely generates value for those brands. Although there do not appear to be official corporate accounts for JUUL, Puff Bar or VUSE on TikTok, as of August 2020, videos tagged #juulgang had 548.9 million views, a 7% increase compared with May 2020; #puffbar had 258.1 million views, a 136% increase; and #vuse had only 1.3 million views but increased 76% compared with May. VUSE’s TV spot suggests an attempt to tap into the zeitgeist of e-cigarette-related content on social media platforms frequented by youth. Indeed, e-cigarette marketers have previously satirised antitobacco advertisements to promote their products,9 demonstrating how advertising content can refer and respond to the media landscape. In addition, TV is a medium through which US middle and high school students report exposure to e-cigarette advertisements.10

Even if the similarities between the VUSE ad and Nicotine Addiction Check memes are coincidental, tobacco companies should comply with the Surgeon General’s recommendation to ‘discontinue advertising that intentionally or unintentionally encourages e-cigarette use among youth.’5 Notably, RJ Reynolds has already been sued for using hip-hop music to target African American youth in violation of the Master Settlement Agreement’s cigarette marketing restrictions.11 Comprehensive restrictions on advertising are needed for all tobacco products across all media platforms to protect young people, while overcoming potential legal barriers.12 Additional research on tobacco-related content in TikTok could inform prevention efforts by public health officials and regulators, and influence more responsible tech and tobacco industry practices.

Data availability statement

Data are available in a public, open access repository.

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Footnotes

  • Contributors KLM designed, wrote and revised the manuscript. MM participated substantively in design and editing of the final manuscript.

  • Funding MM holds an Innovation in Regulatory Science Award from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

  • Competing interests None declared.

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