Tobacco scientists

Big Tobacco will do whatever it takes to stay relevant. They will put on the costume of a friend at a sleepover, a classmate in the hallway or a teammate in the locker room. Tobacco companies will pull out all the stops to make sure nicotine ends up in the hands of our kids. Their ultimate goal? Getting minors addicted. After all, this is how they create lifelong customers! Big Tobacco works hard to convince youth that vapes and nicotine aren’t that bad.

Sugarcoated Marketing

Children and teens are impressionable, and the tobacco industry uses that to its advantage. While recent laws like Tobacco 21 have made selling flavored tobacco to minors more difficult, many e-cigarettes and vape products continue to create loopholes. Companies capitalize on gaps in legislation with kid-friendly flavors such as vanilla, gummy bear and cotton candy. They have also updated their product designs, so their vapes look more like highlighters — and less like cigarettes.

An overwhelming 43% of youth who use e-cigarettes have admitted to trying a device because they were intrigued by how it smells, tastes and looks. Now, they’re potentially saddled with a lifetime of addiction.

In 2018, Juul sponsored a music festival at the Sundance Film Festival, complete with free samples and a vapor lounge.”

Smoke & Mirrors

Fruity flavors aren’t the tobacco industry’s only tactic. Here are just a few of many:

  • Characters in teen-centric TV shows and video games use vapes to appear cool and edgy.
  • A-list performers are paid to promote vapes leading up to their concerts and feature the brand’s logo throughout the venue. For example, Juul sponsored a music festival at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018, complete with free samples and a vapor lounge.
  • E-cigarette companies follow recent social media trends and pay verified influencers to promote their new products, flavors and even “health benefits” on their own personal accounts to their (often underage) followers.
  • E-cigarette companies also like to advertise false benefits. For example, many vape companies claim to decrease or soothe mental health struggles — but in reality, nicotine causes or worsens irritability, mood swings, anxiety, depression and more.

In an effort to eliminate the stigma, vape companies have also recently offered college scholarships, asking high school students to write essays on why vaping is safer than smoking. That’s right — tobacco companies are so desperate to secure their next customer base, they’ll recruit nonsmokers to fight their battles for them in exchange for an education.

How We Built the Character

Like other product placement tactics in advertising, vapes are popping up in popular TV shows. For our “Shapeshifter” spot, Big Tobacco starred in the dual roles of the Hollywood heartthrob and a young girl’s best friend. After the character in the popular teen show hits his vape, the two teen girls share a vape of their own, striving to be like their favorite celebrity crush.

There are a lot of myths surrounding nicotine products, such as:

  • “They help you relax.”
  • “They’re safer than cigarettes.”
  • “You won’t get addicted.”

We embodied this misinformation by showing the star athlete handing an e-cigarette to his young teammate. Little does the young teen know, his teammate is actually the personification of tobacco ads that lie about the mental health benefits of vaping.

“Vapes look cool and taste good!” Or at least that’s the lie Big Tobacco, or “Big,” tells his peers while disguised as a cool high schooler. He boasts about how harmless vapes are, claiming they help with focus and taste like candy. All these lies have appeared in recent youth-targeted ads for e-cigarettes. “Big” merely repeats these ads to his classmates to persuade them to try the product.

The History of the Replacement Smoker

For decades, the tobacco industry has been working hard to solidify their next generation of customers, or what they call “replacement smokers.” By placing cigarettes in the hands of minors, they can get them hooked before they are legally allowed to buy the products for themselves. As early as the 1920s, tobacco companies used A-list movie stars and cartoon characters to promote certain types of cigarettes — both tactics that appeal to younger audiences. What started with sleek tobacco ads and celebrities holding cigarettes has transformed into an entirely new method of nicotine consumption: flavored e-cigarettes and vapes.


Source: Tobacco Free Kids   |  Source:

Our greatest defense against teen smoking? Big Tobacco’s approach: simply starting the conversation. The older our kids get, the more they’ll be exposed to casual smoking. Talk with your child regularly, and intentionally, until they feel comfortable opening up about their experiences with tobacco.

Click here to view Big Tobacco’s other shapeshifting personas.