Do you remember the infamous "Joe Camel" advertisements for cigarettes back in the 1980s and 90s? These ads successfully got a generation of young people hooked on cigarettes. Recently, e-cigarette companies using a similar cartoon-based strategy to market e-cigarette devices and e-liquids may be attracting young adults to the electronic nicotine-delivery products, according to a new USC study.
In a recent article published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers found that recognition of the cartoon images among those who had ever used e-cigarettes was associated with positive perceptions, such as beliefs that the products would taste good and enhance social life.
"Among young adults who had never used e-cigarettes, we found a significant effect of cartoon-based marketing on their likelihood of using the products in the future," said Jon-Patrick Allem, co-author of the study and assistant professor of research at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
Authors looked at two different groups of young adults who previously completed online surveys assessing e-cigarette use. In the first study, 778 young adults with an average age of 24 years old looked at e-liquid package labels with and without cartoons and were asked whether they recognized the products. In a second study, 522 slightly older participants with an average age of 30 looked at similar cartoon-based and non-cartoon e-liquid labels and rated the appeal of the products.
Among self-reported "never users" of the products, those who recognized the cartoons were more susceptible to future use. Matt Kirkpatrick, co-author of the study and assistant professor of research at the Keck School, stated that cartoons are being used in two ways to advertise the products: as logos by e-cigarette companies and by vendors that sell the products online - this includes via Instagram and Twitter - or offline.
"Cartoon imagery used by some companies are part of the constellation of variables that make individuals susceptible to future use of e-cigarettes", says Kirkpatrick.
The current findings are consistent with prior studies indicating the impact of cartoon-based marketing on cigarettes and unhealthy foods. For example, the character Joe Camel, a cartoon developed by RJ Reynolds as a mascot for its brand, increased awareness and positive ratings, as well as initiation and continued use of, combustible cigarettes. One study published in JAMA in 1991 showed that preschool children recognized "Joe" just as easily as they identified Disney's Mickey Mouse.
Currently, there are restrictions on the use of cartoon-based ads to market combustible cigarettes. The data in the recent study demonstrate a need for these restrictions to include marketing for e-cigarettes, especially because cartoon-based ads target an at-risk population: young adults.
Learn about the history of e-cigarettes, what's actually in e-liquid, and modern marketing tactics by watching the TED talk by Dr. Suchitra Krishnan-Sarin below: