No laws bar networks from running e-cigarette ads. (The regulations preventing traditional-cigarette ads specify loose, cut tobacco rolled in paper.) And the networks already run ads for nicotine gum and the patch, with all the obligatory FDA fine print in the voice-over. But such is the residual stink of decades of deception by Big Tobacco, and the generally malodorous estate of cigarette smoking, that the networks have a kind of PTSD about running anything that could be mistaken for a cigarette ad.
The result is that, while certain TV outlets—BET, the Weather Channel, Ion, a patchwork of local affiliates—have been willing to take the ads NJOY wants to run, the larger places where NJOY really wants to be have set down an obstacle course of seemingly arbitrary requirements. No images of people smoking. No images of anything that looks like smoke. No “glamorization” of smoking. Basically anything that smacks of cigarettes. This puts NJOY in a bind. The whole point of the King is to simulate the familiar smoking experience, yet every element contributing to that illusion is an element also contributing to the creeping nervousness of TV executives.
“They’re still freaking out over Janet Jackson’s tits seven years ago at the Super Bowl,” Beaver says, “so the notion that they’re going to come around to this … And yet they have that Go Daddy ad, which is just gross. They run condom ads at nine in the morning. They run Captain Morgan ads at nine in the morning.”
Initially, when Discovery and Viacom and ESPN all said they would only run the NJOY ad if it didn’t show inhaling and exhaling, NJOY was unwilling to compromise and took its business elsewhere, but TV is so powerful in building awareness that Beaver started reconsidering. ESPN is particularly appealing, because, as with the filtered cigarette 60 years ago, men have resisted what Beaver calls “the big, lipstick-size devices,” and NJOY believes the King is what will win them over.
Beaver’s absurdist task is to find a way to persuade people to buy NJOY’s product while not making the product seem like an appealing thing. “Forgive us for being successful,” Beaver says, a note of frustration in his voice. “We’re going to show the product, and we’re going to do it in a flattering light.” (In April, a $3 million ad campaign started running on ESPN, a billboard went up in Times Square, and hundreds of ads began appearing on New York City taxi tops.)
During fashion week, out back of the tents at Lincoln Center, models and VIPs were entering and exiting by a ramp, and at its base, wrapped against the chill, an actor making some side money stood with a bag full of Kings, “sampling the product,” which meant maintaining a low-hum sales patter—“Try an electronic cigarette? … Free electronic cigarettes”—as Anna Wintour and Vanessa Hudgens and Barry Diller and Theophilus London and hordes of Slavic models came and went. The celebs were typically flanked by buffer people, but Rachel Zoe’s husband accepted an NJOY with a smile, and a fair number of the catwalkers and makeup artists and paparazzi standing around took them with a mix of curiosity and amusement.
The company was here for the runway shows in order to spread the good word, and in particular to escape the miasma of dorkiness enveloping the whole category. Neither Beaver nor Jayzel Samonte, NJOY’s PR head, for instance, uses the word vaping.
“It’s just weird,” says Samonte, who previously co-founded a fashion line, Company of We, which this magazine called “menswear’s newest design darlings.” “I associate it with some dude playing Dungeons & Dragons.”
“We’ll let the market decide what to call it,” Beaver says. “I call it smoking.”
NJOY believes the key to changing perceptions of e-cigarettes is to get the King into lots of people’s hands, so they can see for themselves, and specifically into the hands of what marketing people call “influencers.” “For a long time, electronic cigarettes have said they were alternatives, just like cigarettes,” Beaver says, “but it’s like saying you’re a Porsche, then you get a panel van in your hand.”
“It’s been in the hands of people who’ve bastardized it and kind of got it this negative connotation of: ‘Oh, that e-cig,’ ” Samonte said, sitting in the front row at the Duckie Brown show, which NJOY was sponsoring. “We want to make it something cool that people in the front row will smoke.”
Besides sampling at twenty different designers’ events that week, NJOY would have its Kings in the swag bags at the Oscars and at Vanity Fair’s Oscars party. They had been at big New Year’s events in major cities and would be at Coachella and Stagecoach. “If the gestalt around smoking is supposed to be cool, and everyone tries very hard to not make that case,” Beaver says, “the bottom line is it’s still seen as that … We’re saying, ‘You won’t look foolish with this, whereas a crystal white light …’ ” Beaver gestures toward a competitor’s product on the table in front of him.