Jenny’s love life is in tatters. “You know, I love being single,” confesses the talk-show host, but her smoker-induced “ashtray breath” keeps all the men at bay. After all, it’s hard balancing the roles of busy smoker and eligible woman seeking love. But luckily for Jenny, she’s found “a smarter alternative,” blu e-cigs, cigarettes that make her “feel better” about herself.
It’s an advert strangely reminiscent of Lucky Strike’s “Smoke a LUCKY to feel your LEVEL best!” campaign—except 60 years have elapsed in the process. And why not? It may have been half a century since “Big Tobacco” graced our small screens, but the driving force behind blu is the same that rolls out top US cigarette brands such as Kent, True, Maverick and Old Gold.
Playboy model-cum-ABC host, Jenny McCarthy, has been snapped up as the face of blu, an attempt to actively market e-cigarettes as more than just nicotine replacement therapy. But a move towards glamorising vapourisers doesn’t just give Jenny a new job; it implicitly advertises the parent product of the device—tobacco cigarettes. Advertising needs to focus on e-cigarettes as a nicotine surrogate, not as an en vogue product in its own right. Without this, our saviours from tobacco will soon be the tobacco giants themselves, and after decades of lying dormant, Marlboro Man will don his cowboy hat under the new guise of vaping. Only this time, he’ll be waiting in the wings.
Re-watching the blu webisode triggers certain questions about why tobacco companies want to promote the alternative in the first place. Surely to stop smokers, well, smoking is the last thing a tobacco company wants to do? On the surface, Jenny’s outburst of “That’s why I love e-cigs!” refers to the cigarette deterrent as just that, a deterrent. But then it doesn’t. Jenny’s confession that the e-cig is satisfying without any of the nasty side effects of smoking—no more “stink eye”—glorifies blu as a stand-alone product.
This is where Big Tobacco companies tend to differ with their non-flammable counterparts. In January, a British company without tobacco ties—E-Lites—debuted their first TV commercial, affectionately dubbed “Gangnam Style Baby.” There is an important distinction to be made here.
E-lites is targeting an older clientele of seasoned smokers; middle-aged star Mark Benton is not selling an e-cig lifestyle, but a more convenient device for smoking. The same cannot be said of blu, framed as the perfect companion to a glass of white wine and that “special someone.”
Any Big Tobacco company knows the need to hook smokers early on, the firms recruiting more than 2/3 of smokers under 18. Apparently it’s a target not confined to burnables. Lorillard—blu’s tobacco company—is recruiting young people into the vapesphere by using both Jenny, the flirty, youthful face of the brand and by selling a compendium of flavours. E-Lites restricts its consumer base to three flavours—extra strength, light strength and menthol—the choice of e-juice reflecting that of conventional cigarettes. E-cigs like blu, however, boast 14 flavours including the fruity stylings of coconut, cherry and peach. Even if Lorillard insists its target audience is over 18, the sweet flavours certainly make blu a far more attractive option to youngsters than E-Lites.
In a September study conducted by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, figures show the number of U.S. middle and high school students using e-cigs has doubled between 2011 and 2012 to 1.7 million. The trend offers no sign of slowing down. Although these vapourisers don’t contain tobacco, what they do achieve is to foster an item linked to the tobacco smoking culture. The electronic devices mimic the behaviour of burnable cigarettes, tutoring young people how to successfully inhale without choking—one of the major turnoffs for the virgin smoker. Like Lucky Strike’s 1949 advert, replica smoking is made to look sexy. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to apply this appeal to the original product.
Campaigns for the latest nicotine fix don’t come cheap. Lorillard spent $135 million for the blu brand back in April 2012, the firm owning the top share of the U.S. e-cig market with 37.2 per cent. In the U.K., £60 million has already been spent on smoking deterrent products such as e-cigarettes, nicotine patches and nicotine gum since 2009. Within the next year, the arrival of firms with deeper pockets like British American Tobacco, Philip Morris International and Imperial Tobacco into the British e-cigarette market could well produce a new Jenny for our primetime TV.
Vaping isn’t the problem. I’m all for smokers finding respite from tobacco-tinged lungs. Advertising isn’t the problem, either. Rather it’s the kind of advertising that needs addressing. The Jennies of the world are the problem. The way in which e-cigarettes can be dressed up in flavours and doted on by the young and beautiful—that’s the problem. Advertising needs to focus on e-cigarettes as a tobacco deterrent, and not as the skinny jeans of the inhalation industry. Did I mention how much Jenny loves blu?
Big Tobacco’s motives for entering the e-cig market are questionable at best. The worst outcome for companies salivating at this new business prospect is for e-cigarettes to replace flammables as the new way to get the nicotine fix. But at best, they become training wheels for the next generation of tobacco smokers.
For blu, it’s win-win.