Reynolds American Inc. (RAI:US), which once promoted its Winston cigarettes on the “Flintstones” cartoon show, is returning to television for the first time in 43 years -- this time advertising its new Vuse e-cigarette.
The 60-second commercial, which begins airing in Colorado next month, features lab technicians in white coats and zooms in on the microprocessor that controls the sleek metallic Vuse, which like other e-cigs delivers a nicotine-infused vapor rather than smoke. The spot is nothing like Reynolds ads of yore. There are no cartoon spokesmen. Also absent: a jingle such as “Winston Tastes Good Like a Cigarette Should.”
The commercial draws attention to e-cigs as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration assesses the potential risks of what cigarette companies bill as a substitute for smoking. Rival companies including Lorillard Inc. (LO:US) have drawn fire for airing ads that anti-smoking groups say could hook a new generation on nicotine or induce youngsters to try the real thing.
“This is no Joe Camel fun with people out partying,” said Laura Ries, co-founder of Ries & Ries, an Atlanta-based marketing firm. “It’s high-tech, smart and savvy, an almost clinical approach to the scientific delivery of nicotine.”
Reynolds, the second-largest U.S. tobacco company, in July started selling the Vuse in Colorado as the first step in a national rollout. It’s competing with more than 200 e-cigarette brands, including Lorillard’s blu eCigs and a new product from Marlboro maker Altria Group Inc. (MO:US), in a category expected to double to $1 billion or more in sales this year in the U.S.
While e-cigs make up just 1 percent of the U.S. tobacco market, the big manufacturers need to offset declining sales of traditional cigarettes. Reynolds advanced 0.2 percent to $48.54 at 9:32 a.m. in New York. Through Aug. 23, the shares had advanced 17 percent this year, matching the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.
The U.S. government banned cigarette ads on television and radio in 1971, after the industry lost a hard-fought battle with anti-smoking groups. Because the FDA doesn’t regulate e-cigs, makers are taking a calculated risk and advertising their wares on TV to build as much share as possible before the agency weighs in. The FDA declined to comment for this story.
Reynolds spent years embedding its smokes in the popular culture. Barney and Fred lit up Winstons on the “Flintstones.” So did Granny and Jed on the “Beverly Hillbillies.” More recently, Reynolds tangled with smoking foes over Joe Camel, its advertising mascot for most of the 1990s. It dropped the character in 1997.
“Over the last 25 years Reynolds on multiple occasions has used advertising that has been sharply criticized for its appeal to youth,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington.
So Myers was a bit surprised by the Vuse ad, saying it isn’t among the worst he’s seen advertising e-cigs.
The commercial, which was produced by CHI & Partners in London, could easily be hawking a smartphone or tablet and doesn’t reveal the product until almost half way through.
It opens with the sun rising over the spinning Earth.
“Tomorrow needs a spark, something to move us forward,” a male voice intones against a backdrop of soothing music and futuristic, fast-moving images of stars streaking across the sky, lights spreading across a cityscape and headlights streaming along a highway. “It’s time smoking changed forever. Welcome to Vuse.”
“It is a more sophisticated ad that is less blatant in targeting young people and non-smokers than many of the others we have seen,” Myers said. “It does glamorize smoking. It does make the act of smoking Vuse a 21st century activity clearly designed to appeal to a broader public than committed smokers.”
Vuse is aimed at tobacco users trying e-cigs for the first time or ones who are unsatisfied with the flavor and nicotine delivery of products already on the market, said Stephanie Cordisco, president of R.J. Reynolds Vapor Co., the Reynolds subsidiary that developed the e-cig.
Reynolds spent more than five years developing Vuse and considered acquisitions to enter the category, Cordisco said in an interview. With most electronic cigarettes made in China, Reynolds decided it could develop a “game changer” in its hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, by using a microprocessor to deliver puffs of nicotine consistently, Cordisco said. She declined to disclose spending on the product.
Consumers interested in e-cigs “aren’t looking for celebrity endorsements; they’re looking for a product that works,” said Cordisco, 36, who previously worked on new varieties and packaging for Camel, Reynolds’ top-selling brand, in her eight years at the company.
Reynolds is taking precautions with Vuse, planning to run the TV commercial late at night and other times when adults make up at least 85 percent of the viewership, Cordisco said. She wouldn’t disclose time slots and shows, saying arrangements are still being negotiated.
Health advocates say e-cigs lure young people to take up a habit that may lead to smoking.
“We are seeing an explosion of advertising because the cigarette companies think these products have enormous market potential,” Myers said. “They have the potential to undo decades of work to deglamorize smoking with teenagers.”
Commercials for blu eCigs, which controls about 40 percent of the U.S. market for electronic cigarettes, uses actor Stephen Dorff and Jenny McCarthy, a new co-anchor of ABC’s “The View,” to endorse the product.
“When it comes to smoking, smelling like an ashtray is not the ideal aphrodisiac,” McCarthy, a former Playboy Playmate of the Year, says in a video on blu eCig’s website. “There is nothing sexy about going outside in the rain or freezing your butt off just to take a puff.”
Jason Healy, blu eCig’s founder, defends the commercials.
“Our advertising is very different to what tobacco used to be,” he said in a telephone interview. “Cigarette advertising was always fictitious. There is no such person as the Marlboro man. There is no such thing as Joe Camel. Blu is about someone who happens to be famous telling their story.”
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