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Smoke Without Fire

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But a survey conducted by GC Metrics, Inc., for NJOY last year suggested that the company will thrive whether or not it can ever make health claims: When hundreds of people who’d never tried electronic cigarettes before sampled NJOY Kings and were asked what they liked about them, only 18 percent mentioned health; 24 percent cited how “real” they seemed, 30 percent how they tasted, and 30 percent that they were smoke-free. “We were like, ‘Holy shit,’ ” Weiss says. “Because if it’s not just about health, the market potential is even greater.”

Vuleta, the product-innovation consultant, told Weiss about his experience working with Procter & Gamble on a new, rice-based Pringles. It was a low-fat snack, but the harder the company marketed its health benefits, the more indifferent consumers were. “What they realized,” Weiss says, “was when people want something healthy, they walk down that aisle where they sell corrugated cardboard and rice cakes. When you walk down the Pringles aisle, you want the fat. You know it’s bad for you; that’s what you want.” Vuleta advised the company to rethink rice: Its role in Asian cooking was to absorb, and serve as a foundation for, all the flavor. As soon as P&G began marketing its new product as flavorful “Pringles Rice Infusions,” sales improved. By this reasoning, NJOY’s emphasis on Kings’ flavor and convenience is not just necessary but savvy.

Without having made a single health claim, NJOY now manufactures more than 100,000 Kings per day, has 47 percent of the market at retail, has raised more than $40 million in capital, and Weiss is taking meetings with 34-year-old billionaires and Goldman Sachs investment bankers. When I visited NJOY in Scottsdale in February, it had recently moved into offices in the middle of a tony shopping plaza (Barneys, Juicy Couture) and was in the midst of installing new cubicles and putting up panoramic photos of the Grand Canyon at sunrise. There was a general sense in the company of being at the start of a grand adventure. There was just the small matter of how to let everyone else know about NJOY’s new product.

“I hate this guy’s voice,” Andrew Beaver is saying, as TMZ’s smarmy voice-over guy begins talking. Beaver is sitting in a glassed-in conference room in the West Soho headquarters of Horizon Media, one of the largest media-planning-and-buying firms in the country, watching a TMZ clip on a wall-mounted flat-screen. The story concerns recent before-and-after abs photos of new Miss America Mallory Hagan, seeming to show her pageant-ready six-pack turning into a “party ball” in just one month, and asks whether photo-retouching or some other mysterious physical change might be to blame. Mid-clip, there’s a cutaway to an ad for NJOY Kings—“Cigarettes, you’ve met your match,” the ad’s narrator says, as a be­stubbled man puts an NJOY to his mouth, draws on it contentedly, and lets the white vapor curl seductively, with Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time” playing—then Absgate resumes.

NJOY sponsors TMZ’s home-page “hot box” every week and gets to review the editorial content before signing off on letting the ad run. “I guess that’s approved,” Beaver says. Has he ever not approved one? “No,” he concedes. One week earlier, in this same room, Beaver and the Horizon folks had chuckled over another TMZ item, about actor Stephen Dorff being photographed while apparently urinating in public in Los Angeles. Dorff is a spokesperson for Blu, NJOY’s main rival. “I would love them to pick up another Stephen Dorff mishap,” Beaver says.

TMZ is one of the biggest drivers of traffic to NJOY’s website, but more fundamental is that the site is willing to run the ads. On this morning in February, the company is weeks into a marketing campaign in which it will spend upwards of $14 million in six months on radio, TV, and digital advertising. (Its ads will also appear in this and other magazines.) Beaver is meeting with Horizon to discuss in granular detail the advertising options available to a well-­capitalized contemporary product hawker—from gas-pump screens to airport-­escalator screens to convenience-store-door “clings,” all targeted micro­geographically. But as much as the meeting is about how NJOY should spend its money, it’s about who’ll take it.

The last televised cigarette ads were by Philip Morris, two commercials that aired just before midnight on New Year’s Day, 1971, during The Tonight Show. Forty-two years passed. And then, on February 3, 2013, during the Super Bowl, viewers in Phoenix, Cincinnati, Harrisburg, Austin, and Richmond saw something that looked awfully like a cigarette ad.

In the weeks leading up to the game, Horizon Media had “asked everyone who would take it,” Beaver says. “It was no, no, no, no, yes, no, no, no, no, no, yes.” The spot ran on four Fox-TV affiliates and six CBS-TV affiliates, but the sweetest may have been in Richmond, home to tobacco giant Altria, where the NJOY team could entertain the fantasy of 5,000 Big Tobacco employees at game-day barbecues suddenly beholding an apparition on their television sets. The Super Bowl ad had a dramatic effect. In Austin, the following week, sales at 7-Eleven were up 32 percent. In Phoenix, they were up 44 percent.


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