Soon after launching its e-cigarette into the teen market, Juul Labs launched some provocative, and, critics say, brazen, ad campaigns that included mimicking SpongeBob SquarePants. The San Francisco company asked Niche.com to list the brand’s TV ads on its database, said Joel Goldstein, professor of law at the University of California Hastings and former president of San Francisco’s public health department.
In one ad, a jester asks, “What’s the difference between Juul and a rock?” Another shows a younger girl kneeling on the stairs, and the text: “Fun, a cool look, no ties and no big pressure.” And a third opens in an empty room. The text: “This is Juul. It’s a tiny cigarette, without the stigma, unencumbered by limits, just like you.”
The anti-smoking group NORML alleged that the ads failed to disclose the drug ingredient propylene glycol, an ingredient used to make and flavor the e-liquid, and, by implication, were designed to fool kids. NORML’s lawsuit said that despite promising to pull the ad shows, Juul kept airing the shows and refrained from reducing the cartoons’ cartoon content to make them more family-friendly.
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The complaint asks the court to order Juul to comply with the terms of a 2015 settlement of a proposed class action against cigarette maker Lorillard, which accused it of targeting the kids’ market by packaging cigarettes with cartoon stickers, drinkable food and package stickers.
When asked about the lawsuit, Juul said in a statement it and its creators are “committed to a fair, safe and engaging experience. The quick and easy access of Juul pods to youth will not be tolerated.”
In the past year, the industry has slowly returned to TV, and some e-cigarette brands are now as popular with teens as their traditional cigarette counterparts, said a recent report from the anti-smoking group Moms Against Smoker Harassment (MASH). They complained that the products “reveal how the industry is attempting to appeal to younger consumers without sounding obvious or inviting teens to just take a sample.”
And Juul, a US$1.4 billion public company, was singled out in a report for its heavy marketing, frequently featuring super-hero messages, of its device. “In an age where the FDA is ramping up efforts to curb cigarette marketing, one of the tobacco industry’s newest weapons is getting marketers and tastemakers to push their branding even more,” said Gary Giovino, MASH’s president and CEO.
Juul declined to make executives available for an interview.
Full story on Forbes.com.