Seeing the Whole Picture on Reducing Teen Vaping

We have seen the evolution of research and its relationship to effective marketing develop in real time, and in the interest of remaining in a leadership role, behavioral science has been a constant point of discussion in our offices.

We know that to be the best advocates for our clients, whether their goals are building a compelling brand or developing an excellent customer experience, we need to find frameworks for understanding what people do—and not just what they say they’ll do.

Behavioral science is so important to the future of product development and communications that we are constantly looking for ways to incorporate it into the research we are doing or utilize its teachings to better advise our clients on how to interact with customers.

One of the topics that has been continually interesting and instructive to watch develop is the developments in the tobacco industry. Over the past few decades, this industry has been turned upside down through consumer action, litigation, regulation, and just plain old changes in trends.

It seemed for a while like maybe we had all figured out how to deal with tobacco. Its use had plummeted, especially among younger users. Then came vaping.

According to the CDC, use of e-cigarettes has been skyrocketing among high school students. E-cigarette use increased from 1.5% (220,000 students) in 2011 to 20.8% (3.05 million students) in 2018. During 2017–2018, e-cigarette use increased by 78% (from 11.7% to 20.8%.

The FDA has now made moves to try to curb the availability of e-cigarettes for minors. “Evidence shows that youth are especially attracted to flavored e-cigarette products,” said Food and Drug Administrator Dr. Scott Gottlieb in a statement, “and that minors are able to access these products from both brick-and-mortar retailers as well as online, despite federal restrictions on sales to anyone under 18.”

But it wasn’t just regulation that brought the rates of teen smoking to record lows.

Two years ago, during a behavioral science conference that several of our team attended, Mark Hall, a strategic Planner at FCB Garfinkel, gave a 20-minute talk about the ways that behavioral science influenced one of their most successful campaigns: The Real Cost, a campaign about the dangers of tobacco. Smoking cessation campaigns are always a challenge. The challenge is summarized quite well by a line from the movie "Thank You for Smoking," delivered by tobacco executive BR (as played by JK Simmons): “We sell cigarettes! And they’re available and they’re cool and they’re addictive. The job is almost done for us!” Given the challenge eloquently laid before them, how could FCB Garfinkel effectively develop a campaign that would convince teenagers—who strive for rebellion and coolness—that tobacco was a danger to them?

The other challenge faced is based on the behavioral principle known as temporal discounting. In its essence, it means that we place less value on things that are far away from us. This is a problem for convincing teens not to smoke, because while they understand that cigarettes can cause cancer, or lung disease, or other nasty illnesses, these are consequences that are decades in the future for them. They don’t understand or care about how one cigarette at age 17 affects them. In order to overcome these challenges, the focus of the campaign was to show the consequences of the now for teen smokers.

One of the primary focuses was in making them not cool. Hall discussed the behavioral concept of normative social influence—basically, the idea that most teenagers who smoke do so because someone around them smokes, normally multiple family members. In that way, smoking becomes normal, and therefore easier for the teen to adopt. But, what if the campaign showed all of the people around them not smoking? What if it was shown to not be a normal behavior? After all, statistics show that more than 4 out of 5 people don’t smoke, but showing a non-existent behavior is rather difficult.

Using this behavioral principle as a basis, the agency decided to always depict the ill consequences of being a smoker around your non-smoking friends. Teens who lit up in the ads were bullied into it and their friends are always disappointed by the disruption of their otherwise fun activities. This always resonates with the teenager’s desire to fit in and image consciousness. No teen wants their friends to be upset with them, so each ad goes out of its way to show the disappointment that friends feel when the lone smoker goes out to light up. Other principles came into play, as well—loss aversion, for example, allowed them to talk to teens about addiction as a loss of the newfound control they were coming into as they entered adulthood.

Understanding these principles and seeking to apply them as supplements to strong consumer research and creative development are crucial to the future of brand campaigns, and the days of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks is going by the wayside.