For the second year in a row, the electronic cigarette maker NJOY will be running a television ad during the Super Bowl. This year’s ad, which will run in Miami, Denver, San Antonio, and Nashville, depicts two bros helping each other through different moments in their adulthood—pulling a silly prank, avoiding a bar fight, moving into a new apartment, and attending one friend’s wedding. It closes with the tagline “For everything friends do for each other, this new year, return the favor. Friends don’t let friends smoke. Give them the only electronic cigarette worth switching to.”
While it has been illegal to advertise cigarette smoking since 1971, those regulations don’t apply to electronic cigarettes. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to release proposed regulations some time this year, which may or may not include a proposed advertising ban. Either way, it could be years before any laws governing the new products—which emit a water vapor laced with nicotine instead of smoke—take effect.
For now, electronic cigarette companies are free to market their products on television, in print magazines, and on the radio. They haven’t been shy about it. In December, citing data from Kantar Media, the Wall Street Journal reported that the top electronic cigarette makers spent roughly $15 million on TV ads the first nine months of 2013, up from $1.1 million during the same period the year before.
Of the three electronic cigarette companies with the most market share (between them, Lorillard’s blu, LOGIC Technology, and NJOY account for roughly 75% of convenience store sales according to the most recent Nielsen data), the Arizona-based NJOY is the only one that will be running a Super Bowl ad.
The president of LOGIC Technology, Miguel Martin, an e-cigarette maker based in Pompano Beach, Florida, that just edged out by NJOY for the second-place spot in convenience store sales, up to 20.3% in dollar share (LOGIC is up to 20.3% in dollar share Lorillard’s blu is at 45.2% and NJOY is at 18.3%), according to the most recent Nielsen data, says they don’t think electronic cigarette companies should be doing any TV advertising at all, especially during the Super Bowl.
Martin, a veteran of Altria’s Philip Morris, says he’d support a federal ban on electronic cigarette advertising on TV. He says TV advertising, especially on the Super Bowl, is irresponsible, it antagonizes regulators unnecessarily, and that it isn’t the most effective way to target adults who already smoke—the demographic that most major electronic cigarette makers claim to be marketing to.
“I don’t want a non-smoker to use my product. I don’t want a child to use my product,” says Martin. “When you do things like run a Super Bowl ad, [you] put yourself and the product in the bad spot.” By which he means that running a Super Bowl ad gives ammunition to those who don’t support electronic cigarettes, even for adult smokers. He fears that something as widely watched as a Super Bowl ad may induce regulators to take an extreme stance by banning radio advertising as well. (LOGIC technology advertises on radio programs were it says 70% of the listeners are over 21.)
“It’s very disappointing. It’s very inflammatory. It is hard to dispute the [negative reaction:] ‘I’m sitting with my kid, he’s 6 years old with Denver Bronco’s jersey, and he saw imagery of someone who looks like he is smoking.” (Martin was not referring specifically to NJOY’s ad. And, it is worth noting that this year’s NJOY ad does not depict anyone puffing on an electronic cigarette). Craig Weiss, the CEO of NJOY, disagrees. “I don’t think an ad that says ‘friends don’t let friends smoke’ is going to annoy regulators,” he says, “we’ve shared the ad with public health community and received a very positive reaction to it.”
Aside from the desire to act responsibly, Martin says LOGIC Technology spends most of its marketing dollars on displays and promotions at brick-and-mortar retailers. That is where adult smokers, who can’t buy cigarettes on the internet, buy their product, he argues. In light of LOGIC’s recent ascent in convenience store sales, the strategy seems to be working.
For his part, Weiss says NJOY decided to run an ad in the Super Bowl again this year because last year’s ad boosted sales and because retailers like to see investment in the brand. As for whether the ad will reach children watching the Super Bowl, he says: ”I’m less concerned about our advertisement than children under the drinking age watching one long beer commercial that’s occasionally interrupted by football. There shouldn’t be anything controversial about people wanting to advertise their products, especially when we are advertising a product that’s an alternative to a toxic product that kills people.”
Unlike Martin, Weiss is deeply opposed to a federal ban on electronic cigarette advertising. “If they tried to publish that as law, the day it was effective is the day we’d file a lawsuit to protect our first amendment rights to truthfully communicate with our customers. It is important for smokers to be aware that they have an alternative. It is time for public policy to stop confusing the arsonist with the firefighter.”