From tiny startup to Silicon Valley’s favorite vaping company — Stanford researchers shine new light on Juul’s rise

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  • Stanford researchers recently unveiled a trove of images from ads that Silicon Valley e-cigarette startup Juul used to market its flash drive-esque devices.
  • The company was recently valued at $15 billion, but it faces a growing backlash from public-health experts and scientists who worry about its skyrocketing popularity among young people.
  • Juul maintains that its products are for adult smokers who want to move away from traditional cigarettes.
  • But a recent study found that Juul stood out from other e-cig companies by marketing its devices on social-media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram — platforms with large numbers of young users.

The kids are not alright.

According to regulators and public health experts, vaping is the latest trend among young people, and the habit is creating a generation of new smokers. At the center of the controversy is Silicon Valley e-cigarette startup Juul, whose sleek devices now rule the vaping market.

At Stanford University, the alma mater of Juul co-founders Adam Bowen and James Monsees, researchers have been quietly assembling a trove of images, videos, and social media posts that the startup used to market its devices. Their work, which they revealed for the first time last week, is part of a larger study on the effects of tobacco advertising and includes faculty and students from pediatrics and medicine to history and anthropology.

The thousands of images shed light on how a tiny vaping startup used a combination of launch parties, social media, and free samples to become the predominant seller of e-cigs in just three years. And they add new fuel to the debate over whether the company deliberately marketed to young people, as US regulators launch a crackdown on youth vaping.

The images suggest that Juul’s ad campaign began with launch parties in New York City and other cities, where guests were invited to try the Juul for free and share selfies on social media. 

“Juul’s launch campaign was patently youth-oriented,” Robert Jackler, a practicing Stanford physician and the prinicpal investigator behind the tobacco image collection, told Business Insider.

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Juul has maintained that its products are not for young people and are intended entirely for adults looking to transition away from traditional cigarettes and onto less harmful vaping products.

“The advertising was intended for adults, was short lived and had very little impact on our growth,” a Juul spokesperson told Business Insider in response to questions about the Stanford research.

According to the Stanford researchers who collected the images, one of the main aims of Juul’s New York City launch party (along with a handful of similar events in other cities) was to give away free or highly discounted samples of its products, which contain highly addictive nicotine. 

“Their business model was to get the devices in your hands either for free or cheaply,” Jackler said.

Read more: Silicon Valley e-cig startup Juul ‘threw a really great party’ to launch its devices, which experts say deliberately targeted youth 

More than 1,500 samples were given out at each event, according to materials viewed by Business Insider from the Los Angeles-based advertising firm that helped Juul plan the events.

But after learning that US regulators forbade free sampling of tobacco products — a 2010 rule that was amended to include e-cigarettes like the Juul in 2016, the company began charging people $1 for the products, Jackler said. 

Shortly after the launch parties came what Juul insiders refer to simply as the “triangle campaign,” a series of ads which featured young people posing with a Juul on a brightly-colored, triangle-bedazzled background.

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As part of that campaign, Juul emailed customers and encouraged them to become what they called “Juul influencers,” according to materials that Jackler shared with Business Insider.

That strategy directly impacted teens, he said.

“You started seeing viral peer-to-peer communication among teens who basically became brand ambassadors for Juul,” said Jackler.

Jackler and his team of researchers also compared Juul’s ads to the campaigns of traditional Big Tobacco companies. In one section of the collection, the researchers display Juul ads side-by-side with traditional tobacco ads from brands like Virginia Slims, Lucky Strike, and Kool.

Juul side by side comparison e-cigs cigs Virginia Slims

In addition to posting its photo ads across social media platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter, Juul advertised its sweet flavors as one of the main reasons to use the product.

Researchers have said these flavors are used to hook young people; Juul maintains that the flavors play a key role in helping adults transition to their products and away from combustible cigarettes.

Read more: The wildly popular e-cig startup Juul is valued at $15 billion, but it faces a growing backlash of lawsuits and investigations

One Twitter ad featuring their Creme Brulee-flavored cartridges asked viewers to RT if they enjoyed “dessert without the spoon.” 

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A handful of researchers and public health experts say that numerous components of Juul’s advertising campaign — from holding parties to launch their products to emphasizing their sweet flavors — had the effect of making their products appealing to young people who otherwise would not use tobacco products.

Last week in an attempt to address what’s been called an “epidemic” of teen vaping, federal regulators at the Food and Drug Administration announced plans to place flavored e-cigarettes like the Juul behind a stronger regulatory fence.

Read more: Regulators will ban menthol cigarettes and chip away at flavored e-cigs to combat teen vaping — but experts say their plans fall short

In an attempt to get ahead of the FDA’s planned regulatory moves, Juul temporarily halted sales of its flavored products in retail stores. It has also changed the names of some of its flavors to remove some of their youth appeal. Creme Brulee is now Creme; Fruit Medley and Cool Cucumber are now simply Fruit and Cucumber.

“Although Juul is taking measures now to address the virality of its products among teenagers, it’s too little too late,” Jackler said.

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