Full steam ahead: The e-cigarette market is returning cigarette advertising to TV screens

It’s almost 50 years since cigarette advertising was banned from British TV, and two decades since loose tobacco and cigar ads faced a similar fate. Last month however British American Tobacco returned to our screens as we start to see the world’s biggest tobacco firms pour millions of pounds into electronic cigarette advertising. Rory Sutherland, vice chairman, Ogilvy & Mather UK discusses.

E-cigarettes are a disruptive innovation. Like many disruptive innovations, they emerge unexpectedly from the bottom up, not from the top down – and are pioneered not by large companies but by small start-ups. As such they are always rather annoying to a number of vested interests and large organisations.

You might assume I am referring to the tobacco industry here, and in part I am. But this natural resistance also extends to other interest groups – pharmaceutical companies who are heavily invested in patches and gums, and even anti-smoking groups who have made an enormous emotional investment in other solutions to the problem, and who may resent the idea that their problem is being solved in other ways by someone else entirely. Purists may also be naturally hostile to the idea of harm-reduction as opposed to outright abstinence.

But e-cigs are important in that they seem to satisfy cravings in a way that other substitutes may not. Addiction is highly complicated. Regular drinkers will become effectively drunk if they consume large quantities of tonic water from glasses of which the rims have been merely dipped in gin. A large part of addiction may lie not only in a chemical dependency but in the rituals and sensations attached to smoking – which e-cigs mimic in a way other replacement therapies don’t.

That’s why, for the moment, we should give this technology the benefit of the doubt.

None of this is to say that e-cigs are harmless. It is simply too early to say. There are almost certainly as-yet undiscovered risks attached to them. Some of the the appeal of e-cigarettes, let’s be candid, is that you can use them in places where you can’t smoke normal cigarettes (though this does not include aeroplanes, as I recently learned).

But some arguments are probably a bit desperate. I am instinctively suspicious of claims that they are ‘gateway drugs’ – that children will automatically progress from e-cigs to the real thing. First of all, appeals which rely on urges to ‘think of the children’ are quite often little more than emotional blackmail. Besides, the whole ‘gateway’ argument is a little fatuous: I am sure I could make the case that Lapsang Souchong is a gateway-drug to crack-cocaine if I chose my statistics selectively enough. And, to me, the magic of e-cigarettes is that, after using them for a while, the urge to use real cigarettes has disappeared almost completely – something I never thought would happen.

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Looking at it now, the e-cigarette market is at an interesting stage. It appears to be much like the car market in its early phases – an enormous number of players and a noisy plethora of competing brands.One effect of regulation may be to reduce this market to a much smaller number of competing brands – which ironically (through simpler choice) may have the effect of making the category more appealing to consumers, not less. (Good agencies might do well to try to spot the two or three contenders who stand to survive and flourish when the category is winnowed down).There is an interesting question marketers need to address in relation to the packaging and branding of e-cigarettes, as well as how they should be treated in advertising terms. This is an area I myself am conflicted about. If they’re not that harmful (and nicotine on its own probably isn’t), then marketing them as some form of entertainment is no worse than advertising coffee.My puritanical instincts would perhaps prefer that not to happen. Would I want to see a novelty brand with cartoon characters on the pack? No. However, regulators, at this early stage, should probably err on the side of slight indulgence: in any case human psychology is so perverse that overly harsh regulation may make the category cooler than it was before. (By contrast, I was intrigued to be told by my Dutch colleagues that no true Amsterdamer would dream of smoking dope in a coffee house, as decriminalisation has made these place unspeakably naff – fit only for German and English tourists).When the first e-cigarette TV ad aired, no-one was more surprised than me. Ogilvy had been approached by e-cigarette brands and led to expect that TV advertising would not be allowed. In its current form, I would argue that marketers need to figure out if the category needs advertising; I suspect it does, because marketing will have a crucial role in normalising the activity and making the category more credible. I also believe dedicated e-cigarette shops will help smokers with the face-to-face advice they need to make the switch. More controversially, I would favour an indulgent approach towards flavours – since if you get hooked on bubblegum-flavoured e-cigs, you’re less likely to relapse back to standard tobacco.Incidentally the benefits of nicotine need to be explored along with the costs: it is, after all, an appetite suppressant. There is a bit of a witch hunt against smokers which is as much motivated by snobbery and malice as altruism: there are plenty of other behaviours (drinking, gambling or talking about football) where the external harm is equally immense. This feature was originally published in The Drum on 19 March. The full issue, including the Design Census 2014, is available to purchase online.

UK, E-Cigarettes, Advertising, Travel & Leisure