Why Is Vaping Still Popular? A Journey Through Adspace and Time

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(Patricia Neal for Chesterfield. Web, Jan. 1950.)

Maya Shepard, Staff Writer

If you are a student at Roswell, there will be (or has already been) a time where you run into someone vaping in a bathroom. There will be a moment of awkward eye contact as you both review an invisible social contract of don’t-be-annoying-and-tell-them-to-stop, and then you will either enter a stall or leave in the most (hopefully) non-judgmental way possible.  

(If you are a vaping student at Roswell, you probably just rolled your eyes at that.) 

However, you likely already know the facts around vaping. You know that, while it originated as an alternative to help people quit smoking, it still contains nicotine- a substance scientifically proven to be more addictive than heroin. You also know that nicotine use in young adults can damage brain development and influence patterns of continuing addiction, and that e-cigarettes’ flavors and stabilizers have caused lung inflammation, cardiovascular disease, and death in their teenage consumers year after year.  

So why is there still a pushback? How could the predicted reaction to a warning against vaping be the same isolating eye-roll as when our parents tell us to get better grades, and not the realization that the murderous gummy-worm-flavored smoke machines being largely sold to us by a company (Juul) financially supported by one of the largest cigarette manufacturers in the world (Altria Group, Inc.) are a very bad idea to put into our bodies? The answer lies with decades of marketing and the formation of a dangerously successful public image. 

(Before proceeding any further, I would like to make it very clear that this article is meant to investigate the factors promoting vaping among teenagers and is in no way meant to belittle those going through the very real battle of nicotine addiction. For those seeking resources, a variety of free nicotine cessation programs are currently being offered through groups like the Truth Initiative, whose text-only “This Is Quitting” program has assisted over 195,000 teenagers as of last year. The website healthline.com also has a helpful 2020 article on the process of quitting e-cigarettes. Click here to read the article

To understand the prominence vaping has found with America’s young consumers this decade, we must look to its predecessor’s success with its audiences. The advertisement of cigarettes drew its power primarily from incorporation into the popular sensations of their time: film and television media. 

  From the establishment of Hollywood as we know it in 1927 (with the first audio-visual movie) to around the 1950s, tobacco companies such as Lucky Strike and Camel invested millions into major film studios in exchange for the utilization of film stars as advertisers for their products.  

Advertisements were originally more direct; rather than today’s subliminal integration, there would be prominent, cheery posters of stars (often contractually obligated to appear as a part of their arrangements with studios) holding up and professing their adoration for the latest brand of cigarettes. The studios, in return, would receive national advertisements for their latest films, which stars could advertise while modeling the cigarettes.  

However, with television’s success in the early 1950s, tobacco advertisers quickly moved the majority of their investments over to this new medium’s rising stars, to build closer connections with modern consumers; for example, this 1951 ad for Philip Morris cigarettes features the stars of I Love Lucy: 

(Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz for Philip Morris. Web, 1951.)

In both cases, companies sought to distance themselves from other brands’ mishaps with “cigarette hangover” and throat pains. Other advertisements from both partnership eras seem aware of consumers’ throat and lung issues following cigarette use yet proclaim their own products as a kind of miracle cure. Health risks are glossed over despite a clear issue going unsaid. This, unfortunately, will not fade over time. 

The tides turned again in the early 1970s, when cigarette commercials were banned from exhibition on all television and radio programs. This led to a resurgence of film studio partnerships, with a key difference in strategy: subliminal messaging. Rather than have large-scale campaigns proudly exhibiting cigarette trends, brands were slipped into visuals and even plotlines to subtly influence consumers to seek escapism through their purchase. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, cigarette companies relished in the ignorance of the American consumer toward the marketing tactics in play. This is not an exaggeration.  

“Film is far better than any commercial that has been run on television or in any magazine, because the audience is totally unaware of any sponsor involvement,” said the Hollywood Public Relations Firm in 1972. 

“Smoking is being positioned as an unfashionable, as well as unhealthy, custom. We must use every creative means at our disposal to reverse this destructive trend. I do feel heartened at the increasing number of occasions when I go to a movie and see a pack of cigarettes in the hands of the leading lady. This is in sharp contrast to the state of affairs just a few years ago when cigarettes rarely showed up on camera. We must continue to exploit new opportunities to get cigarettes on screen and into the hands of smokers,” said Hamish Maxwell in 1982.  

While this behavior led to a Congressional investigation into onscreen cigarette product placement the end of the 1980s, cigarette companies have continually employed that same strategy to this day, strikingly in films geared toward children. While most companies have contractually restricted themselves to only advertising in movies not intended for young audiences, the Philip Morris and American Tobacco companies did the opposite, with respectively 30% and 40% of their partnered films in the 1980s having been targeted at underage viewers. 

The former of the two companies, Philip Morris, may ring a bell, as that corporation sponsored the “I Love Lucy” advertisement referenced earlier in this article, and produces the Chesterfield brand seen in the Patricia Neal poster. It was run by Hamish Maxwell (yes, the same “we must continue to exploit new opportunities to get cigarettes on screen and into the hands of smokers” Hamish Maxwell) from 1984 to 1991. The now-conglomerate runs multiple business ventures through either stock or full ownership (for example, Marlboro Cigarettes), funded the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (which lobbied to discredit the scientific consensus that humans are influencing climate change), is the second most active organization in the nation when it comes to lobbying the U.S. government (having spent around $101 million between 1998 and 2004, according to the Center for Public Integrity), and was found guilty of civil fraud and racketeering in August 2006 for its deceptive marketing of “light and “low tar” cigarettes as a so-called ‘safer alternative’- three years after rebranding itself as the conglomerate Altria Group, Inc. They are the same organization which spent $12.8 billion on a 35% stake in Juul Labs in 2018. 

If these past giants are investing in what they clearly perceive to be the next step in lucrative smoking products, it means the future may not be so different after all. But how has the smoking industry persisted through so many generations? And how can it still influence this one?  

This research will continue in Part II.