January 16, 2019 • By Christine Byrd
In the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA), tobacco companies agreed to stop advertising smoking via TV commercials and billboards or by targeting children. But new, largely unregulated technologies have converged to transform the landscape for marketing nicotine.
Online advertising, for example, is not regulated by the MSA, nor are e-cigarettes, which deliver nicotine and other chemicals without burning tobacco like a traditional cigarette. UCI Merage School Marketing Professor Connie Pechmann, who has studied nicotine advertisements and addiction for decades, says, “It’s the wild, wild West out there on the internet.”
Several unique aspects of online advertising make the medium appealing to e-cigarette vendors. Chief among those is the relative affordability of digital ads, which especially appeal to small vendors who have huge growth potential. In fact, previous research found website banner ads to be the third-greatest source of exposure to e-cigarettes and similar products among all US adults.
Previous studies explored the content of ads for vaping, and while others examined the demographic reach of e-cigarette marketing, Pechmann and her colleagues from UCI’s Program in Public Health — David Timberlake, Jennifer Garcia-Cano, Samantha Cino and Margarita Savkinda, and Dmitiriy Nikitin of Gillings School of Global Public Health at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — set out to combine the two areas of research to answer the question: How does the content of ads for vaping differ across targeted demographic groups? Their research is published in the journal Tobacco Control.
Competing with Cigarettes
Over the years, Pechmann has studied the impact of different types of advertisements and found that comparative ads are by far the most effective. These are ads in which a lesser-known, upstart brand claims to be better than a highly recognizable leading brand.
Pechmann’s research showed that these types of ads not only made viewers prefer the upstart, but look less favorably on the leading name brand. Comparative ads “yield greater attention, awareness, information processing, purchase intentions and purchase behaviors” as opposed to non-comparative advertisements, the researchers write. This type of marketing is so effective, Pechmann says, that it is banned in Europe.
Pechmann and her colleagues set out to identify the 194 distinct e-cigarette brands that were using online advertising in 2015. These brands put out 932 unique ads, which three UCI students then coded based on their content. For example, was the ad encouraging users to vape to help quit cigarettes, or telling them that vaping is more convenient because it can provide a hit of nicotine even in locations where cigarettes are banned?
Researchers grouped all of the ads featuring smoking cessation, harm reduction, convenience, greater savings, less impact on the environment, and social/lifestyle benefits (like less odor) under the umbrella of “comparative” ads. All other ads were considered non-comparative. Ads claiming that the vaping devices were better than traditional cigarettes were excluded because they focused on similarities between the two.
Teasing Out Demographic Differences
Public health research has thoroughly covered the disparities in tobacco-related diseases. For example, African American men who smoke have a higher incidence of lung, pancreatic and head/ neck cancers compared to white smokers. How, then, does marketing to ethnic groups differ?
Researchers used data from the ad measurement firm comScore to estimate the racial or ethnic identity of visitors to a given website. In the process, some websites were eliminated because not enough people visited to create valid data. Ultimately, 551 unique ads from 152 brands of e-cigarettes or other vaping devices appearing on 1,206 different websites were included in the analysis.
Not all websites have equivalent demographic reach. Therefore, the researchers determined which websites appealed more strongly to certain demographics by utilizing demographic data about internet users overall from the 2015 Health Information National Trends Survey.
Concern for the Hispanic Market
Since previous research has shown whites are more likely to be aware of and to use vaping products, researchers expected to find that group was seeing more ads. And their research bore that out. But what surprised them was the type of ads they were seeing.
Websites that attracted larger white audiences had significantly lower odds of displaying the most effective type of ads: the comparative ads. When minorities are shown ads for vaping, they are much more likely see the highly effective comparative type of ad. Websites that had greater appeal to Hispanics had significantly greater odds of comparing vaping products to traditional cigarettes.
“We need to worry about the Hispanic market,” says Pechmann. “They’re seeing the more persuasive ads for vaping, and we’re not sure why. It may have something to do with the fact that different ad agencies usually handle the Hispanic market.”
Because the ads compare the newer e-cigarettes to traditional cigarettes, Pechmann assumes they are targeting people who are already smokers. “The good news is they’re not trying to get new people, they’re targeting people who are already smokers,” she says. “But the problem is they’re saying, ‘keep smoking.’”
What’s not yet clear is whether these more effective ads are leading more Hispanics to take up vaping, and if they are, what the health impact will be. Possibly, this marketing trend is helping Hispanics who are addicted to nicotine take up vaping to help stop smoking cigarettes. But just as likely, vaping is keeping Hispanics from quitting by giving them new methods to feed their nicotine cravings – at the mall or other locations where cigarettes aren’t permitted.
In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration stepped up its efforts to regulate e-cigarettes by prohibiting e-cigarette manufacturers from claiming that they’re less dangerous than traditional tobacco products, without research-based evidence. Additionally, the FDA put in place an expensive application process to approve any new tobacco product can be marketed in the US.
Most likely, the smaller brands that have been most profuse in online advertising will be the hardest hit. This will significantly disrupt the online marketing efforts the researchers saw between 2009 and 2015. Nevertheless, no new regulation can undo the impact that those ads have already made on millions of internet users.