Day 6

A new lawsuit says vape giant Juul targeted kids with ads on Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon

Despite Juul's insistence that its nicotine vaping devices are meant for adult smokers, internal company documents obtained by the attorney general of Massachusetts allege that its early efforts included buying advertisements on platforms such as the Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and other kids' websites.

A lawsuit was filed this week against Juul Labs by the attorney general of Massachusetts

Photos from a 2015 launch party for Juul's e-cigarette featured youthful attendees using the products. According to the lawsuit, attendees were encouraged to pose for photographs that could be included on billboards in Times Square, New York City. (Juul/Government of Massachusetts)
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A lawsuit filed by the state of Massachusetts this week is alleging vaping giant Juul Labs intentionally targeted youth by advertising their e-cigarette products on websites meant for teens, including Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.

In a news conference announcing the lawsuit, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said the state was facing a "public health crisis" by creating a "new generation" of people addicted to nicotine. The lawsuit calls on Juul Labs to cover "costs associated with combating this public health crisis affecting young people across Massachusetts."

Arizona, California, Illinois, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, and the District of Columbia have also launched lawsuits against Juul over its marketing practices.

Juul has asserted that it only intended to target adult smokers, not youth, but internal company documents revealed by Healey this week calls that into question. Documents included in the lawsuit include details about Juul Labs' decision to forego an adult-oriented advertising campaign in favour of a more youthful approach.

In the United States, more than 2,700 people have been sickened from vaping products, with 64 confirmed deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In Canada, 17 cases of illness have been reported to Health Canada. 

Buzzfeed News science reporter Stephanie Lee told Day 6 host Brent Bambury that Juul did not comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, and explained what's behind the legal action.

Here is part of that conversation.

Among these internal documents are photos from an early Juul ad campaign, and one of them is a picture from a Juul launch party that took place in 2015. Can you describe what's happening in that photo?

This is a launch party that Juul threw in the summer of 2015 when it was just starting to sell its newly invented e-cigarette that looks like a USB stick and has now become ubiquitous. 

What they did was, they had a launch party in New York City and they invited a bunch of young people, people in modelling and fashion and music and the nightlife industry, and they had them come and take pictures while Juuling. 

And then they use these photos in different advertisements, including billboards across Times Square. And so this was part of the early advertising strategy of Juul in 2015, according to this lawsuit brought this week.

According to the lawsuit, several photos, including these, were used to advertise Juul's e-cigarette in Times Square, New York City. (Juul/Government of Massachusetts)

And what [do] these photos of glamorous young people vaping suggest about who Juul was targeting?

So these early ads and photographs and internal documents from Juul, they add even more evidence to the narrative that in the early days, Juul was marketing its products to people who were young, including people who were under the age of when you can use tobacco products. 

These photos are part of a strategy that Juul used — again, according to this lawsuit this week — that also involved reaching out to influencers in social media and in Hollywood and buying ads on websites meant for kids like Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network.

How did Juul manage to get their product on platforms like Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network?

According to this lawsuit, they bought banner ads and video ads for a whole range of websites that include those TV networks. 

And they included CollegeHumor, a comedy website; College Confidential, which is a message board visited by high schoolers; and a bunch of websites meant to help middle to high schoolers with their math homework or their social studies, homework. Websites that had games for young girls.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey called vaping among teens a 'public health crisis' during a news conference on Wednesday. (Craig Mitchelldyer/The Associated Press)

Now, they apparently also were able to get their product into Instagram and Facebook, even though there's policies on those platforms against advertising any tobacco-related products. What was Juul's work around there?

Facebook and Instagram have policies of not accepting paid ads for tobacco products. 

But what the documents found by the attorney general suggest is that in 2015, Juul worked around those rules by paying third-party online publishers like Gawker, Hypebeast [and] UrbanDaddy to [promote] the product through their own social media platforms. 

Juul also had its own Twitter, Instagram and Facebook until 2018, and it posted, among other things, ads from its own Vaporized campaign, which is the name that they gave the early campaign. 

So the lawsuit says that Juul broke the spirit of the law, even if not the exact letter of the law.

They had so many different strategies here. There's also something called the mood board for one of Juul's early ad campaigns. What is the mood board?

So what the lawsuit found based on internal documents is that when Juul was thinking about how to market its device, it first hired an ad agency to come up with a concept. 

The ad agency said, what if you compared pictures of the Juul to old devices like a boombox, an old cellphone from the '80s, images that might appeal to people who were a little bit older….

But Juul actually went another direction, according to the lawsuit. They then hired somebody else who came up with the idea of using young people looking like they're at a party as the main image. 

So they had mood boards with people against colourful backgrounds who are scantily clad, who are hanging out with their friends, and they've got messy hair and they just look like they're having a lot of fun…. 

These documents just show that along the way, even some people at Juul apparently expressed concern that the models look too young. But they kept going.

A Juul starter kit, as available in stores. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

We're talking about a very early time in the evolution of this company, 2015. Was Juul saying publicly at that time about their product and who they were trying to aim it at?

Juul has said that it never intended to market to young people. It says that the customer base is the world's one billion adult smokers and its e-cigarette is for those adult smokers who are trying to quit. 

In 2018, one of the co-founders told the media that advertising to youth was the antithesis of Juul. Juul had said that the campaign in question only lasted a couple of months and, again, was never intended to market to kids and was abandoned after a few months. 

So these documents and this lawsuit call that narrative into question because it really lays out in such greater detail the concept to realization process of this advertising campaign and how youth was such a sort of unmistakable aesthetic.

You've spoken with the company this week after the attorney general in Massachusetts filed this lawsuit. Did they talk about the campaign? What did they tell you?

They said that they hadn't looked at the complaint yet, but, quote, "We do not intend to attract underage users." 

They reiterated that they remain focused on cooperating with regulators and public health officials to combat underage use and focus on adult smokers away from conventional cigarettes.


This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview, download our podcast or click Listen above.

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