Commentary

When Teens Take It Too Far

Sometimes a marketer’s biggest problem isn’t getting teens to use a brand more. Instead, it’s getting them to use it less.

Such is the challenge facing Juul, maker of a small, discreet vaporizer intended to help wean adult smokers off cigarettes. Juul cartridges hit the market in mid-2017, and were an instant hit -- but among teens, who prefer vaping to smoking. The cartridges are easy to hide from parents and teachers, easy to use off and on throughout the day, come in a variety of soothing flavors such as mint and mango, and still pack a powerful punch of nicotine.

As a result, after years of decline, underage smoking skyrocketed between 2017 and 2018, growing +38% year-over-year among high schoolers, and +29% among middle schoolers.

These gains are driven by a near-doubling of e-cigarette usage among high schoolers, to about three million users. Today, a whopping one in five high school students vape.

As a result of this epidemic, the Food and Drug Administration has stepped in, and seeks a ban on menthol cigarettes (also favored by young smokers due to the soothing effect of menthol) and flavored cigars. They’re also limiting the sale of e-cigarette cartridges to areas of retail stores off-limits to minors, or age-verified websites.

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And it’s not just e-cigarettes that are in the news for addicting teens. The "Fortnite" video game has exploded in popularity, with 200 million players by the end of November, +60% from June. Not only are hundreds of millions playing, but they’re doing so for hours a day. Parents are finding it hard to pull their kids away from the game, and some are making their kids go “cold turkey” for weeks or months on end.

Teens are becoming addicted to the game for the same reasons that people can become addicted to gambling or cell phones, and it is interfering with some teens’ relationships and schoolwork.

What are the lessons for marketers to ensure teens don’t become addicted to their products?

*Target adults with both message and channel. If you’re marketing a product intended for adults, make sure the marketing message is intended for adults rather than kids or teens, and also make sure to advertise on platforms targeting adults 21+. Marketers in the 1980s got in trouble with campaigns featuring Joe Camel and Spuds MacKenzie, using these used spokes-characters to sell cigarettes and beer, respectively.

Marketers in the late 1990s got in trouble for advertising violent movies and games during shows with a large teen audience. So make sure you’re actually targeting adults with your adult products.

*Promote responsible usage. Never show consumers (particularly young ones) bingeing on a product or service. Depict the brand being used in moderation, as part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Provide tips on how to use responsibly, as well as resources on how to set limits around use, or eliminate it altogether if it starts becoming an addiction.

*Regulate yourself, or D.C, will do it for you. Set stringent limits for targeting teens, and make sure lawmakers know the best practices you’ve adopted -- or they might set even more stringent limits. Juul is now taking steps to limit sales to teens, and hoping the lobbying muscle of new investor Altria will ward off more onerous restrictions, but it might be too little, too late.

From the very beginning, be the best in your industry at selling responsibly to teens. Doing so might ward off government intervention and negative PR, and also force your competitors to play by your rules.

It’s great to stimulate a high level of teen demand for your brand, but it’s even more important for that demand to be socially responsible, or your brand might go up in smoke.
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