The hazy world of vaping ads

In April, Britain's Royal College of Physicians reported that the hazards from e-cigarettes are likely less than the harms from smoking tobacco. As CBC Ad Guy Bruce Chambers points out, such findings fan the flames of marketing on both sides of the issue.

The controversial alternative to smoking has equally controversial ads

E-cigarettes are creating confusion in the advertising world. (Regis Duvignau /Reuters)

In April, Britain's Royal College of Physicians reported that the hazards from e-cigarettes are likely less than the harms from smoking tobacco, and smokers should therefore be encouraged to vape as an alternative. 

Such findings can fan the flames of marketing on both sides of the issue, with vaping portrayed as both a safe alternative and as an addictive risk to your health.

And the tactics companies use to promote vaping vary wildly.

In an expensive online ad launched in April, the viewer watches from above amidst swirling clouds of dust as a helicopter herds cattle across bone-dry rangeland.

At the end of a hard day's work, we see a cowboy pilot take a long drag on an e-cigarette.

It would be easy to assume the ad is selling an updated version of Marlboro country. But in reality, it's for e-cigarette brand Blu, which is owned by Imperial Tobacco, maker of Kool cigarettes.

Altria, the maker of Marlboro, takes a non-cowboy, info heavy approach in its e-cigarette ads.

The big tobacco companies all own at least one e-cigarette brand.

And that makes them the target of other types of ads.

In a campaign from this year, the California Department of Public Health calls e-cigs "big tobacco's next chance to make a killing."

In a 2015 ad from the same department, we see people vaping, and type says, "From the people who brought you lung cancer, e-cigarettes. A new way to inhale toxic chemicals, with a drug as addictive as heroin, and unknown long-term effects. There's a lot the e-cig industry isn't telling us about vaping."

Meanwhile in Canada, in addition to seeing U.S. e-cigarette ads on cable stations, we see online ads which are subject to few regulations, like one for Moonshine Brew smoke juice in Manitoba.

While it's technically illegal to sell or advertise e-cigarettes containing nicotine in Canada, inconsistent enforcement has allowed a multi-million-dollar market to develop.

In fact, lack of regulation of this new industry might be one of the main reasons for its huge growth, as companies rush to gain market share before laws rein them in.

Even patriotism can be used to sell vaping products.

R.J. Reynolds, the maker of Camel cigarettes, has a "Made in the U.S.A." theme for a Vuse e-cigarette ad.

But the party for e-cigarettes may be about to wind down. In May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) started regulating e-cigarettes and banned sales to minors.

The same month, the European Union reclassified e-cigarettes as a tobacco-related product and set ad limits similar to those on regular cigarettes.

That's why there are two reasons a 2014 U.K. ad for VIP would never make it to air today.

The ad features a woman speaking in a sexually suggestive manner, which is why the U.K.'s Advertising Standards Authority banned the ad twice, only allowing it to be aired after its "overly sexual" content was removed.

And at one point the woman actually inhales vapour, something new regulations would likely never allow. 

How will all this affect us here in Canada? Until we catch up with the U.S. and Europe by imposing national regulations on e-cigarettes, Canadian marketers and consumers will continue to exist in a haze of uncertainty.

Bruce Chambers is a syndicated advertising columnist for CBC Radio. 

About the Author

Bruce began his career writing radio commercials for stations in Red Deer, Calgary and Toronto. Then in-house at a national department store, and then ad agencies with campaigns for major national and regional clients. For the past couple of decades, he's been a freelance creative director and copywriter for agencies in Calgary and Victoria. He began his weekly Ad Guy columns on CBC Radio in 2003.