If you switch your TV on early Saturday morning or open a kids’ magazine, the bombardment of candy-colored advertising is immediate and overwhelming. Cartoon characters dance across the pages, the newest water gun or rainbow pony is pictured in brilliant color, and cereal boxes show off their prizes. For teens, YouTube influencers and banner ads on social networking platforms hold powerful sway over this demographic. What do these saccharine ads have in common? They are all designed to attract the attention of their target audience: children.
The ethics of marketing to minors is a murky area in the business world. From a purely commercial standpoint, an argument can be made in favor of this practice. For some companies, such as toy and candy firms, direct involvement with their target market segments is essential in order to move their inventory. Additionally, to preserve competition and consumer choice, firms’ freedoms must be respected. In the competitive business world, it is necessary for companies to engage in tactics of self-promotion in order to sell their goods and services to a discriminating populace. Additionally, to foster market competition and product variety for consumers, companies deserve to maintain significant autonomy regarding their freedom to advertise to whoever they choose.
On the other hand, marketing directly to children can quickly spiral down a darker path. Because children’s brains are not fully developed, they are more susceptible to scams and cannot be expected to know what is best for them. Lacking the maturity to soberly assess situations and analyze facts, children will often choose the most fun or enticing option with little regard to other, potentially harmful, factors. Reasons like this explain why it is unrealistic to expect a young child to reliably choose healthy foods or resist impulse buys.
These important issues regarding marketing to minors have recently taken center stage as hundreds of vaping-related illnesses and deaths are making headlines. While there are multiple manufacturers of vaping supplies, none have been pressed into the spotlight more than JUUL. JUUL is currently the subject of multiple investigations and lawsuits, many centering around its alleged targeting of vaping devices towards the teenage demographic.
On JUUL’s website, which, as of now, limits access for people under twenty-one years old, JUUL is careful to describe itself as a product “…intended for adult smokers who want to switch from combustible cigarettes.” Curiously, these disclaimers were almost never mentioned in JUUL’s first wave of advertising. Since the allegations of marketing to youth have begun, JUUL has deleted many of the photos from its initial advertising wave, though plenty of images from the “Vaporized” campaign remain easily accessible online and appear tailor-made for a teen audience.
The “Vaporized” ad campaign, featuring bright colors and young models, heavily represents JUUL’s products as a fun and harmless indulgence with friends, not as an aid to end cigarette smoking for adults. Additionally, JUUL’s primary product launch events featured parties and bands popular with teens, further throwing a shadow upon the motivations of the company’s management. Another common thread that is woven through the accusations against JUUL is its heavy advertising presence on social media websites, platforms dominated by teens. In its use of these websites, JUUL has not only posted ads, but has engaged in aggressive, strategic marketing. One of these tactics involves JUUL’s use of relatable hashtags in its posts, allowing its ads to easily trickle into the feeds of users who had never before searched for the brand.
When viewing the mounting evidence of JUUL’s concentrated targeting of teens alongside the dramatic rise in youth vaping rates, it is easy to believe that JUUL has contributed to the exponential rise of teen vaping: According to a report from CNN, the increase in e-cigarette use among high schoolers surged 900% between 2011-2015. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that, as of 2017-2018, 38% of US high schoolers and 13% of middle schoolers have tried vaping at least once. Even the FDA has been tackling this issue through teen-oriented materials discouraging vaping under the umbrella of its “The Real Cost” initiative. It is impossible to deny that youth vaping has surged, even as tobacco use among high schoolers has been declining.
Advertising’s persuasive nature and alarming tendency to disguise facts within an idealized reality are issues that the industry has wrestled with since its beginnings. However, perhaps the growing body of evidence that points to JUUL’s shifty marketing tactics will provide the necessary jump-start the public needs in demanding greater transparency on the risks and long-term effects of vaping. Moving forward, hopefully JUUL and other e-cigarette brands will be held properly accountable regarding their advertising choices, before more teens’ lives are marked by addiction.