Ethical marketing and the rapid rise of vaping
If you were to advertise a vape, how would you do it?
You’ve definitely seen them by now – those colourful sticks that people raise to their mouths, leaving a plume of sweet-smelling smoke behind them. Perhaps what makes vapes most noticeable is the fact that because they don’t leave lingering smoke or smells, unlike cigarettes, you’ll spot people using them indoors in places like restaurants and shops.
Vapes originally came about as a healthier alternative to smoking, but as Moyo Ajibade, a comedian on social media noted, some people aren’t giving up cigarettes to smoke vapes, “they’re just giving up fresh air”. This speaks to the rise of vapes as purely recreational, and not as a means of reducing cigarette harm. What this then makes me curious about is: If vapes are being sold as an entirely new product (essentially unrelated to giving up cigarettes) then who are they being marketed to, if not smokers trying to quit? Tobacco and nicotine-related marketing is highly restricted across the globe, so the answer is in the product itself: bright colours, fruity flavours, playful flavour names (“Fruit Fusion”, “Freezy Grape”)… It’s safe to say these products aren’t developed with your 50-year-old chain-smoking uncle in mind.
The general attitude to vaping seems to be curiosity at best, and concern at worst. Rightfully so, since the most concrete evidence we have is simply “the research hasn’t been done yet” (seriously, try Googling whether vaping is bad for you and let me know if you come back with a solid answer). The main issue that the public has with vaping is this not-knowing, coupled with the fact that they’re so appealing and easy to get for teenagers, who definitely shouldn’t be inhaling nicotine.
But, vapes promise no bad smells (as someone who used to have very long, curly hair, I can definitely see the appeal here) and discreet use (as someone who used to be a teenager, admittedly I can see the appeal here too).
Marketing ethics are the moral principles that guide a company’s advertising practices, so the way a company decides to advertise their products is indicative of their company culture, standards and the moral outlook of the industry.
Ethical marketing is usually guided by principles like empathy, honesty, transparency, reliability, authenticity and sustainability. Within the context of the tobacco and nicotine industry, it goes without saying that companies will market within the confines of what is or is not legal, and less so within what is considered ethical or unethical. An example of this can be seen on the websites of prominent vape companies, where transparency is severely lacking. Ingredients are vague (although vape packaging in South Africa clearly states that the products contain high levels of nicotine), and one website plainly called its founders “illusive”.
How do you go up against giants?
It should first be acknowledged that many vape companies are owned by tobacco companies, so they aren’t actually up “against” the tobacco industry. The irony is that many vape companies base their messaging on the dangers of smoking, with the notion that vapes are a healthier alternative. The issue here is that cigarettes have been around for hundreds of years in some form or another – long enough for everyone to know the damage they cause. Vapes haven’t. So, can they be marketed ethically as a healthy smoking alternative without that track record?
They’re more addictive, easier to smoke regularly, more attractive to a younger market, and, most notably, vapes are allowed to be advertised to the public (you wouldn’t see a billboard ad for cigarettes in 2022, but take a look at some of the high rise buildings in Cape Town and Joburg, and you’ll spot a vape or three).
Ethical marketing on social media
There are rules and regulations outlined by Meta (Facebook, Instagram), Twitter and TikTok to ensure that advertising regulations are adhered to, in line with location-specific laws and general marketing principles.
Meta has a list of ad topics that are restricted (meaning they’re likely to get taken down if they don’t pass these checks) and another list of topics that are completely prohibited. Yes, tobacco is on the same list as guns and explosives. This goes to show that in the world of social media, there are strict processes to follow so that ads are in line with a platform’s code of ethics. However, it also goes to show that there’s a grey area that can be taken advantage of as well. At Pomegranite, it’s up to us to ensure that our own ideals are reflected in the work we do.
So, how would Pomegranite advertise a vape?
We simply wouldn’t. 😄