Objective In April 2018, JUUL Labs announced a $30 million investment in efforts to combat underage use of its products through ‘independent research, youth and parent education and community engagement’. Prior evidence demonstrates that tobacco industry-funded prevention programmes are ineffective and may work against tobacco control efforts; they do not discourage novices and youth from tobacco use but often improve the tobacco industry’s public image. We describe the nature, timing of and expenditures related to the JUUL underage use prevention advertisements across media channels.
Methods Expenditures for newspaper, magazine, television, and radio marketing and promotional efforts were collected through Kantar Media’s ‘Stradegy’ dashboard, an online platform which provides counts of advertisement occurrences and expenditures on various media channels. JUUL public relations and corporate social responsibility ads were identified in the Kantar Database. All ad expenditures were extracted and aggregated by date. Analysis of the expenditure data was triangulated with newspaper and industry advertisement archives.
Results Advertisements aired nationally and in over half of all US-designated market areas (n=130) across media platforms including newspapers, magazines, radio, and online in mobile web and internet displays. In 2018, JUUL Labs spent $30 million, predominantly for print advertising. The ‘What Parents Need to Know about JUUL’ ads primarily advertised JUUL’s smoking reduction ‘mission’ and promoted the product. By 2019, advertising increased to $36.2 million. JUUL’s message strategy transitioned to ‘Cracking Down on Underage Sales in Retail Stores’ and featured adult smoker testimonies, linking JUUL to smoking cessation.
Discussion Marketing expenditures promoting JUUL’s corporate social responsibility mission exceeded their $30 million investment in the underage use prevention efforts. The expenditures were focused on the media market areas where health organisation and legislative officials were launching investigations into JUUL social media and other promotional strategies.
- advertising and promotion
- tobacco industry
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Despite recent reduction in sales, JUUL Labs remains the market leader in the USA among brands of electronic nicotine delivery devices.1–4 In 2019, approximately 3 million children in the USA reported regular use of JUUL.3 The rapid increase of JUUL use among youth has raised concerns among the public health community, which put JUUL Labs in the limelight for deliberately targeting youth with digital and experiential marketing.
In response to public outcry, JUUL Labs announced a 3-year $30 million investment in April 2018 to combat underage use through ‘independent research, youth and parent education and community engagement’.5–8 JUUL’s stated strategy would involve a research-funding programme, developing an underage vaping prevention school curriculum, a media campaign, and other activities supporting state and federal tobacco control initiatives.6 8 9 However, the new emphasis on JUUL’s mission to prevent underage sales and help smokers ‘switch’ to an alternative product contradicted earlier and concurrent images of the company. In 2014, the co-founder James Monsees stated that JUUL Labs was not an activist company, and in 2015 the chief research and development engineer claimed that ‘anything about health is not on [their] mind.’10 In late 2018, JUUL Labs received a $12.8 billion investment from Altria, manufacturer of cigarette brands such as Marlboro, for a 35% share in the company.10
JUUL’s historical and ongoing marketing activities potentially undermine the credibility of their public service campaign and suggest these actions may be an attempt to rehabilitate the company’s corporate image in the form of corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts. Historically, CSR has encompassed a wide range of corporate activities initially aimed to maximise economic value and ensure compliance with established laws to avoid legal liability (self-regulation), and increasingly to contribute to the advancement of society in ethical and humanitarian domains and to minimise self-caused harms.11–14 Past research suggests that tobacco industry CSR efforts can be disingenuous and are intended to rebrand the company and counter negative publicity.15–18 For instance, Philip Morris devised a series of media campaigns between 1998 and 2003—‘Working to Make a Difference’, ‘Tobacco Settlement’, ‘Youth Smoking Prevention Education’ (for parents and youth) and ‘PM USA’, to address public concern about youth tobacco use.19–21 The company spent more advertising dollars on these campaigns than they did to promote their Marlboro brands, and the relative size of their expenditures on CSR efforts demonstrates the importance Philip Morris placed on constructing a positive representation of the company for public consumption.19 These efforts were a core part of the tobacco industry’s public relations strategies to discourage regulation and reduce opportunities for opponents to impose restraints on industry practices.16–19 Prior evidence also demonstrated that tobacco industry-funded tobacco use prevention programmes were ineffective at their public facing aim, reducing youth tobacco use.20 21
In order to better understand the potential impact of the JUUL Labs parent and youth education campaign, the current study describes the content, timing, and amount of expenditures associated with JUUL corporate promotion and parent and youth education advertisements across broadcast, print and digital media in the largest media markets in the USA.
For this retrospective review, we used Kantar Media’s ‘Stradegy’ dashboard to collect data on JUUL Lab’s newspaper, magazine and radio marketing expenditures from 2018 to 2019.
Our analysis was restricted to JUUL’s campaign advertisements, which were classified under the category ‘JUUL Labs: Corporate Promotion’ in Kantar. All ad expenditures for this category were extracted and aggregated by year. We confirmed advertisement content against industry advertisement archives and used the Wayback Machine Internet Archive to retrieve the ad copy.22 Corporate promotion was identified in the following media types: internet display (graphical interactive desktop internet display ads or banners), mobile web (size-tailored interactive advertisements optimised for mobile phone users according to the device technical constraints or specifications, for example, screen size, resolution location, connection type), local radio, national spot radio, newspapers, national newspapers, Hispanic newspapers, magazines, and business to business or trade press. We calculated per cent change in expenditures by media type and provide exemplars of campaign content across the 2 years examined.
Table 1 presents results of JUUL Lab’s corporate promotion of its parent and youth education campaign by media type. Overall, the campaign advertisements ran in local and national newspapers, magazines and radio, as well as online via mobile web and internet displays across 52 designated market areas and the ‘total US’ market. In 2018, JUUL Labs spent $30 million on corporate promotions, predominantly for print advertising. Approximately $27 million was targeted at local newspapers. The highest proportion all media expenditures was spent in Washington, DC (13.8%), followed by Houston (11.2%) and Chicago (10.3%).
In 2019, JUUL Labs spent $45 million on corporate promotions. Although the largest share of expenditures were for print advertising ($36 million), there was a substantial increase in local and national radio, national newspaper and online advertising expenditures in 2019 vs 2018. Approximately $1 million was spent on national radio corporate promotions in 2019, compared with 0 in 2018, national newspaper advertising increased by 400% from $3 million in 2018 to $17 million in 2019, and digital marketing expenditures increased by 14 220%. Washington, DC remained the largest market in 2019 accounting for 19.2% of expenditures, followed by Chicago (18.8%) and Boston (7.4%).23
The content of the corporate promotions also changed over the course of the campaign. The ‘What Parents Need to Know about JUUL’ ads which predominantly ran in 2018 primarily advertised JUUL’s smoking reduction ‘mission’ and promoted the product (see figure 1).22
By 2019 JUUL’s campaign strategy began to transition toward the ‘Cracking down on Underage Sales in Retail Stores’ messaging and raising the minimum age of tobacco use to 21 years (figure 2). Across both 2018 and 2019, JUUL’s corporate promotion advertisements consistently featured adult smoker testimonies, linking JUUL to smoking cessation (figure 3).
Marketing expenditures promoting JUUL’s CSR mission exceeded their $30 million investment in the underage use prevention efforts. The campaign did not appear to be designed to educate parents on the health risks of vaping or nicotine addiction or delivered in a way to reach parents. Approximately 45% of expenditures in 2019 were focused on three media market areas: Washington, DC, Chicago and Boston. These expenditures arguably failed to reach all US parents, since the population in these media markets does not correspond to the 45% of the US population who identify as parents. It is possible that JUUL spent more in these markets for other reasons. For example, health organisation and legislative officials in Washington, DC, Massachusetts and in Illinois were launching investigations into JUUL social media and other promotional strategies in 2019.23 One possibility is that JUUL focused their spending on these areas primarily to target policymakers. This strategy would align with JUUL’s other policy-interference efforts, like actively opposing local efforts that would also reduce youth access and appeal of their products, such as the San Francisco flavoured product sales restriction,24–26 and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying the US Congress and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to gain a better regulatory position.27
Our findings are consistent with prior research on the evaluation of tobacco industry CSR campaigns. The dramatic rise in youth electronic cigarette (e-cigarette) use in recent years has led to a public outcry and promoted a negative image of JUUL Labs and vaping industry in general. Parallels may be drawn with the deterioration of the public image of the tobacco industry in the late 1990s when changes in the regulatory environment made it increasingly difficult for the tobacco industry to deny the negative health effects of smoking.19 28 For instance, figure 4 illustrates the consistent message strategies used by Philip Morris and JUUL to claim that they are not promoting their products to youth and engage in self-regulation.29 30 Consequently, tobacco manufacturers developed strategies to counter the growing reputational damage to their public image and the potential accompanying loss of profits. This strategy has continued into the present day, with Philip Morris International recently rebranding themselves as ‘delivering a smoke-free future’.31 32 Similar tactics were used in the JUUL Labs’ recent initiatives, with the initial campaign emphasis placed on promoting youth and parent education initiative, as well as advertisement of JUUL Labs’ efforts to counter tobacco use and community outreach to implement ‘Tobacco 21’ laws.
These corporate image strategies were accompanied by an increase in local and national radio and online media, and magazines in 2019, which may reflect increased efforts to promote the JUUL product and boost sales through smokers’ testimonials and influence public opinion on e-cigarette-related policy. This research underscores the need for close scrutiny of the tobacco industry’s advertising strategies that position them as public health advocates, rather than manufacturers of a highly addictive product. They also highlight the need for FDA to exert its full authority to regulate e-cigarettes and in doing so, ensure that attempts to influence young people under false pretences are curtailed.
This study is subject to limitations. First, Kantar’s media audit is not comprehensive, thus the advertising expenditures may be underestimated. Kantar does not capture expenditures for social media, sponsored events, retail advertising or internet promotions not paid for directly by the company. Second, the content category used to retrieve advertising expenditures may not have captured all relevant content. Third, Kantar estimates advertising expenditures using advertising rates, and these may differ from the actual dollars paid by JUUL Labs.
More research is needed on the impact of the public image promotion efforts by the JUUL Labs. Future studies should investigate how JUUL’s CSR campaigns influenced public opinion regarding e-cigarette-related health risks and regulation of these products, as well as the consumption of JUUL e-cigarettes.
What this paper adds
In response to the public health concerns about the popularity of JUUL products among youth, JUUL Labs announced a 3-year $30 million investment in April 2018 to combat underage use through research funding efforts, youth and parent education and community engagement.
This study reveals that marketing expenditures promoting JUUL’s corporate social responsibility mission exceeded their $30 million investment in the underage use prevention efforts.
The campaign did not appear to be designed to educate parents on the health risks of vaping or nicotine addiction or delivered in a way to reach parents. The expenditures were focused on the media market areas where health organisation and legislative officials were launching investigations into JUUL social media and other promotional strategies.
Patient consent for publication
Contributors GS, GK, SLE, LC and BS together designed the study. GS conducted data analysis. SLE and GK contributed to data interpretation. GK and GS wrote the first draft. SLE, LC, MB, RA and BS revised the draft. The final version of the paper has been reviewed and approved by all coauthors.
Funding This study was funded by Truth Initiative.
Competing interests None declared.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.