accompanied Juul’s 2015 launch. Times
Square billboards and print ads in Vice magazine featured attractive twentysomething
models against Candy Land–colored backdrops and echoed, intentionally or not, the
types of advertising that tobacco companies
historically used to appeal to younger audiences. The company also hosted sampling
events at festivals and nightclubs, including
New York City celebrity-magnet 1 Oak. Photos of patrons holding Juuls began to appear
on the company’s Facebook and Instagram
pages, lending a cool factor to the brand.
“The portrayal was of young adults in highly
attractive settings,” says Matthew Myers,
president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free
Kids, a nonproft focused on anti-tobacco
advocacy. “I mean, it’s the Virginia Slims
woman, it’s the old Winston, Marlboro, and
Newport advertising come back to reality.
And then for Juul to say, ‘We were shocked,
shocked that it appealed to young people,’
[that] defes credibility.”
After taking a notably hands-off ap-
proach to e-cigarettes, the FDA began look-
ing into Juul’s launch campaign this past
spring, and tasked the company with hand-
ing over documents pertaining to its mar-
keting efforts. The agency stepped up the
pressure in September when it announced
a crackdown on e-cigarettes and gave Juul
and other makers two months to propose a
plan for reining in the teen-vaping problem.
A few weeks later, it sent agents, unannounced, to Juul’s headquarters to gather
additional materials. (Agents also visited
other e-cigarette manufacturers around the
same time—at least one of which, the Imperial Brands–owned Blu, continues to feature
images of sun-dappled young models in its
According to a source familiar with Juul’s
launch, the campaign had been designed to
target smokers ages 25 to 34. The company
wanted to set a “premium” price for Juul,
says this source, and when it ran a survey of
different demographics, “that was that age
range that [the higher prices] popped for.”
Juul’s board of directors signed off on the
company’s launch plans, and Monsees, who
was CEO at the time, personally reviewed
images from the billboard photo shoot while
it was in session. No one seemed to foresee
that the bright colors and positive messag-
ing might appeal to audiences even younger
than 25. “We were a company full of people in their late twenties, early thirties,
without tobacco experience,” says this source. “We lacked any sensitivity as
to how it would be perceived. We looked at it as launching a new technology.”
The wake-up call came via an October 2015 segment on The Late Show with Ste-
phen Colbert that criticized the company’s youth appeal. Juul quickly developed new
ads with muted colors and cropped heads, unsure of which models would read as
too young. Within six months, there were no traces of the original offine campaign.
Juul maintains that the launch initiatives had little to no effect on its busi-
ness; sales did not take off until nearly two years later. Another fact in the com-
pany’s favor: According to the CDC, vaping became more popular than smoking
among teens for the frst time in 2014—a year before Juul entered the market.
Juul may have exacerbated a teen trend, but it did not initiate it.
Today, the company is distancing itself from the campaign. “It was a mistake,”
says Monsees. “I think the biggest mistake was not believing enough that the core
product proposition would be the most powerful marketing tool that we would
have.” This past April, the company committed $30 million over the next three
years to youth prevention efforts. What users—including teenagers—continue to do
with the product on social channels, however, is largely out of the company’s hands.
WHO JUST LEAVES THIS?” mutters Juul CEO Kevin Burns shortly after I meet him at the company’s headquarters this past August. He is addressing a jumble of cardboard boxes that have been abandoned in a conference room at the already bursting
offces that Juul moved into in March. He bends down
in the wide-legged posture of a former football player to break down each box
before carrying the stack out of the room. Mess erased, we sit down over orange
chicken and noodles to discuss his frst months on the job.
“I’ve tried a few cigarettes in my life, but I’ve never been a smoker,” Burns
says. “I was an athlete growing up, it just wasn’t the thing.” Before joining Juul
last December, Burns was the president and COO of Chobani, where he spent
two years scaling the mission-driven yogurt company. He declined Juul’s initial
overtures, but says he was eventually drawn in by the size of the market and
the technology Juul had developed.
During Juul’s frst year, sales were modest at best, despite enthusiastic prelaunch feedback from focus groups. They began to creep upward in mid-2016,
and by late 2017, Juul was on a tear, with demand regularly outpacing the
company’s erratic supply. The board tapped Burns to manage Juul’s explosive
growth, along with the mounting backlash. “I didn’t know what a rocket ship
we’d be on,” he says.
Burns has moved quickly to demonstrate Juul’s good intentions in the U.S.
while gearing up for overseas expansion. He began positioning the company
more overtly as a tool to help smokers quit. The VP of marketing he recruited
from Nike, Ann Hoey, has overseen a complete overhaul of Juul’s social media
presence. Models, product shots, and firty hashtags—anything associated with
the company’s initial marketing efforts—have all been scrubbed. In their place,
the company now features frst-person testimonials from former smokers who
have quit with the help of Juul.
Other smoking cessation tools—gum, the patch, lozenges—release nicotine
at a slow and steady rate. The potent nicotine hit that Juul offers makes switching from combustible cigarettes almost seamless, and its favors appear to keep
people engaged. On Reddit, I correspond with a Juul user named John, who has
been outspoken on this issue: “I tried pretty much every [smoking cessation]
product and trick over the course of the last 10 years (30-year habit),” he writes