Oral fixations, micro-brands, and cigalike lifestyling
We’re living in ENDD times, that is to say the era of the Electronic Nicotine Delivery Device. While in many ways government oversight has signaled the e-cig’s transition from niche to mainstream habit, prohibitions against television marketing has meant a dearth of lifestyle advertising evangelizing vaping. Still there are some ads, most I imagine designed to circulate online. A few years ago, Courtney Love coded e-cigs as packaged rebellion lending her punk princess celebrity to hawk Sottera Inc.’s disposable cigalike product. “It’s a fucking NJOY,” croaked the angsty then 48-year-old, rebuffing the society woman in a tiara and long white gloves who taps her on the shoulder, telling her she can’t smoke inside. Its attempt to brand e-cigs as antiestablishment is far from nuanced, but still the ad’s more sophisticated than the infomercial-style spots by former Playmate and anti-vaxxer Jenna McCarthy for Blu, Big Tobacco’s venture to cash in on the vaping phenomenon. In one ad, McCarthy sits on a white couch in a sterile living room, her sparkling blue eyes staring right at the camera as she works to sell lines like “being single has its perks but when it comes to smoking, smelling like an ashtray is not the ideal aphrodisiac” and “now, when I go to public places that don’t allow smoking, I can whip out my Blu and know that I won’t scare any guys away.” (NB: Since this commercial was created in 2014, many states and other localities, including New York City, have banned vaping in public places.)
Love’s and McCarthy’s spots aren’t the only vape ads targeted at women. This past spring, Blu’s parent company Imperial Tobacco borrowed and updated their competitor Philip Morris’s Marlboro Man icon with a female rancher. Previously, Flavor Vapes, one of the American-Dutch United Tobacco Vapor Group’s five brands, had a series of 20-second commercials with a blonde female lead, proselytizing the e-cig’s absence of secondhand smoke through the slogan “Save Humanity.” In one, she blows vapor at a baby carriage. The UK-based brand VIP had a tongue-in-cheek ad, associating smoking with an oral fixation other than breastfeeding. Here, a sultry brunette approaches the camera, “I want you to get it out…. I want to see it, feel it, hold it, put it in my mouth,” imbuing the unseen vape with a phallic quality. Although you could argue the heteronormative ad could be targeted as much at women who want to look like the lead as men who want to get with her, other ads are expressly talking to women, but in the most condescending tone possible. A commercial for Vapor Couture Electronic Cigarettes, V2’s now-discontinued line of vaping kits “for ladies,” featured girlfriends smiling, laughing, waving, and checking their makeup in the e-cig case’s compact mirror, boasting the product was “SLIM,” “SLEEK,” and “SPARKLING,” with a pink jewel on one end.
In the 163 electronic cigarette videos a Stanford research group compiled on their YouTube channel, nearly all the women in the commercials are white. Curiously, FIN, an e-cig brand marked by its throwback vintage packaging, has one ad — it reads a lot like a generic liquor commercial with a red and black palette, swelling rock soundtrack, and bravado-heavy voiceover saluting “independence,” “freedom of choice,” and “equality” — that features several white women and one black man, as if illustrating the misinformed and exclusionary idea of diversity summed up by that tired phrase “women and people of color.”
The biases in ads for e-cigs and vape juices aren’t very unique. At the same time, the infantile development of marketing materials peddling these products has meant that vaping lifestyles, bro-heavy niches like cloud chasing and customized mods for example, have been left to define themselves fairly independently of commercial advertising. Perhaps just because of when vaping was introduced, a little over a decade ago, but maybe also accentuated by its status as tech accessory in a post-smartphone, post-social media world, vaping has become a cultural signifier indicative of how identity has become synonymous with branding while branding is no longer synonymous with advertising. Basically, I vape therefore I Ohm.