Smoke Without Fire

Photo: Archivio Mondadori/Getty Images

When Philip Morris introduced Marlboro cigarettes in 1924, the ads, far from showing a rugged horseman in some sage-strewn arroyo, depicted a sophisticated modern woman. The cigarettes featured an “ivory tip” to “protect the lips”—or a red one, to hide lipstick stains—and were marketed under the slogan “Mild As May.” For the next 30 years, Marlboro was known as a lady’s cigarette.

Then, in 1952, Reader’s Digest ran an article that would transform the cigarette business. Health concerns about tobacco had been in the air for decades, but after the publication of “Cancer by the Carton,” public opinion jelled around the conviction that smoking was bad for you. Manufacturers hastened to develop a cigarette they could claim was safer. Lorillard had recently come out with a filtered brand called Kent (its “safer” Micronite filters contained asbestos), but though filtered-cigarette sales grew in the year after the Reader’s Digest article, they still held only 3.2 percent of the market. Filters made the “draw” more difficult, and consumers found them strange and effete.

Philip Morris, making use of the increasingly powerful advertising medium of TV, took its own stab at a popular filtered cigarette. In 1955, the company relaunched its Marlboro brand, adding a filter, strengthening the flavor, inventing the flip-top cigarette hard pack, and constructing an ad campaign with the tagline “Filter Flavor Fliptop Box” around masculine imagery (gunsmiths, sea captains, and cowboys). The company had found a way, that is, to get men to buy filtered cigarettes: by focusing on the thing that was most important to them—the flavor they were used to.

By 1972, Marlboro had become the No. 1 brand worldwide, and roughly 84 percent of cigarettes sold had filters. Today, 98 percent of cigarettes are filtered. “The brilliance of Philip Morris in particular,” says Roy Anise, whose roles during 24 years with the company included Marlboro brand manager, was “the way they repositioned the Marlboro to keep the bridge to familiarity.”

Last summer, Anise found himself working for another company in a similar quandary. NJOY makes electronic cigarettes: Sucking on one activates a lithium-battery-powered heating element that vaporizes a nicotine solution while illuminating a light at the tip. Until recently, electronic cigarettes were almost uniformly off-putting: You recharged them by plugging them into a USB port, and there was a scammy, spammy quality to their marketing. Those that didn’t have FDA-baiting names like Safe Cig and HealthE-Cig had cheesy ones like Fin and Krave and Logic and Eonsmoke and V2 and Cig2O and Tsunami and Blu and, for that matter, NJOY. They came in flavors (piña colada, blackberry Champagne, chocolate banana). Most of all, they were just weird-looking, resembling ballpoint pens or cigar cases or, as a fan named the Ocelot noted in a “vaping” chat room, “a cross between a marital aid and a light saber.”

They were, in other words, a long way from the elemental paper and tobacco and fire of traditional cigarettes, from the meditative object lyricized by Sartre in L’Être et le néant, from the visual accessory so integral to the silver-screen images of Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, James Dean, James Bond, and Audrey Hepburn. Whatever glamour cigarettes have possessed, there has always been a tar-to-cool correspondence: Camel unfiltereds were badass; Merit Ultra Lights weren’t.

“It’s hard to feel like James Dean while sucking a plastic glow stick,” Business Insider recently noted. And despite the reported use of e-cigarettes by celebrities including Robert Pattinson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Katherine Heigl, their only major film cameo to date was in The Tourist, where they seemed intended to punctuate the Johnny Depp character’s awkward haplessness. At an awards show in February, Noel Gallagher of Oasis reportedly told Muse’s e-cig-smoking drummer: “Really? Really? Is that where you are at? Do me a favor, mate, either have a proper one outside or don’t have one.”

If NJOY is to cross over—reaching all the people, men in particular, who have been resistant to the category—it will need to pull off something like what Marlboro did nearly 60 years ago. “Mark Twain said history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” says Anise. And so, as four successive groups of six self-identified smokers sat for 75 minutes each in a room in Phoenix one day last summer, Anise and other NJOY executives watched from behind a two-way mirror, looking to see whether they had succeeded in creating a bridge to familiarity. Two of the focus groups consisted of smokers who’d never tried e-cigarettes, and one man, asked what it would take for him to try one, said, with his arms crossed and a look of enormous skepticism on his face: “$75 and a focus group.”

How It Works: 1. “Filter” containing the nicotine solution. 2. The battery, wrapped in paper. 3. Ash-resembling tip that lights up when a person inhales.Photo: Victor Prado/New York Magazine

The dream of a no-combustion ­cigarette—one that wouldn’t produce deadly tar or obnoxious smoke—goes back to the eighties. In 1988, RJR Nabisco introduced its “smokeless” Premier. The company had spent an estimated $300 million ­developing the aluminum-tube device—which worked by heating tobacco without burning it—but early feedback was that it smells “like a fart” and “tastes like shit,” and the company pulled it from test markets in less than a year. In 1995, an entrepreneur named Pu Danming, operating as general manager of the China Healthy Cigarette Development Company, marketed a “cigarette” consisting of a perforated plastic tube, a mix of herbs that would scent the air being inhaled, a light on the end, and a patriotic tune powered by a suction-activated battery. And the first true electronic cigarette, as established in the folk history of vaping, also emerged in China. Invented by a Beijing pharmacist named Hon Lik, the Ruyan electronic cigarette appeared in 2004.

Soon, it became a commoditized, open-market product offered by Chinese factories. You could go online, choose the shape and flavor you wanted from a catalogue, e-mail a graphic file to brand it with your logo, set up a website to fulfill orders, and you were in business. There were maybe 200 online e-cig sellers. But the product they were selling barely registered with smokers.

This shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise. The allure of cigarettes is far more complex than merely the addictive power of nicotine. If it weren’t, so-called nicotine-replacement therapies—gum, the patch—and medications like Chantix would be more successful. Instead, despite a 2011 CDC report that roughly 70 percent of America’s 46 million smokers would like to quit, a 2012 Harvard study of nearly 800 Massachusetts smokers who had recently quit found that a quarter of them relapsed within two years. (As many as half of those also used NRTs.)

The lesson is that as much as cigarette smokers crave nicotine, they yearn for other things, too: the hand-to-mouth motion, the primordial pleasure of sucking on something, the organoleptic experiences of flavor and mouthfeel and “throat hit,” the visual cue of exhaled smoke, the ritual of ignition, the embattled/defiant camaraderie of the smoke break. These vital accoutrements of nicotine addiction were the promise of e-cigarettes, but early models had failed to deliver on it.

For a few years, NJOY wasn’t much different. Mark Weiss was an intellectual-­property lawyer in Phoenix who had learned about e-cigarettes while traveling in China. Weiss’s father had been a patent attorney for IBM, and whenever Mark or any of his six siblings had an idea their father thought was good, he’d file for a patent for his child. The Weiss family was an entrepreneurial brood—four of five brothers became IP lawyers—and Mark thought electronic cigarettes were going to be big, so in 2006 he set up as Sottera, which sold off-the-rack e-cigarettes online under its brand NJOY.

The company’s revenues grew exponentially, but Sottera, and the industry itself, might have died soon after—in 2009, the FDA, arguing that e-cigarettes were an unapproved drug-delivery device, prevented shipments from entering the country. Treating electronic cigarettes as a smoking-cessation product or drug-delivery device would mean years of clinical trials, killing the industry before it was out of its infancy. Sottera had been careful never to make health claims for NJOY, and Mark’s brothers and law partners Jeff and Craig, who had some experience with bet-the-company litigation—they had started a hedge fund that traded on predicting outcomes of major patent lawsuits—joined a suit for an injunction against the FDA. Sottera won at trial and again on appeal, with two courts ruling that the FDA could only regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products under the Tobacco Control Act. Sottera had spent $2 million in legal fees, and Craig Weiss would soon take over as CEO. “This whole category might not exist if these guys happened to all be architects,” observes Andrew Beaver, NJOY’s chief marketing officer, who previously had the job at Russian Standard vodka.

From the beginning, it had been clear to the Weiss brothers that electronic cigarettes should closely resemble analog ones in order to make switching easy. In 2010, through a local business-leadership organization, Craig Weiss met Mark Scatterday, a product designer and serial entrepreneur who had invented the Gripp stress ball (more than 30 million units sold). Working informally for Weiss, Scatterday designed a disposable e-cig (purported to last as long as two packs) called the OneJoy, which became the market leader. “The guy’s like Jony Ive,” Weiss says. “That kind of level of genius.” But the OneJoy was oversize and remained a novelty. “It was the wrong product,” Weiss says. He told Scatterday, paraphrasing Steve Jobs, “We’re going to change the world. I need you,” and in 2011 Scatterday sold his company and joined NJOY full time. Scatterday’s next creation would prove to be NJOY’s real breakthrough.

Scatterday set out to replicate the smoking experience. Partly this meant boring in on the consumer process—making something you’d buy at a convenience store, peel off the wrapping, lift a lid, remove a cigarette, and throw away when done. NJOY hired a master flavorist who’d spent his career in the tobacco industry and, using Marlboro as a model, tweaked the formula to get both the flavor and the nicotine sensation just so. Scatterday isn’t a smoker, but he’d give guinea-pig smokers three prototypes with different nicotine levels, or flavors, and use their comments to refine the recipe. In the process, he received some helpful, not entirely intuitive feedback: It turned out that maximizing the volume of vapor was surprisingly important to smokers. “More is better, bigger is better; it’s more of that wow factor,” Scatterday says. “To see people’s faces and reactions when this big plume of vapor is coming out, we knew we were getting close.”

It was Scatterday’s job to figure out how to achieve the plume most efficiently, battery-wise, while designing a physical object that matched the dimensions of a conventional cigarette and was, if not as light, at least much lighter than other e-cigarettes. Scatterday’s new model came wrapped in the familiar paper and had a slightly squishy “filter” (actually the section containing the nicotine solution). And unlike other electronic cigarettes, which glowed only at the end, where others could see the light but the smoker received “no visual satisfaction,” Scatterday’s King featured an ash-resembling tip that glowed slightly down the sides as well. “It was important to smokers,” Scatterday says, “that sensation that something’s happening, it’s working.” The new NJOY King was a disposable $7.99 e-cigarette in a satisfyingly click-y case, with packaging in colors cunningly evocative of the red, gold, and green used by Marlboro. It wouldn’t come in flavors. Like the OneJoy, it would be touted as lasting the equivalent of two packs. There was nothing else like the King on the market, and after the initially surly man tried it at last summer’s focus group, he gave it the highest possible rating, saying he was “definitely going to buy this.”

The focus-group responses were across the board more consistently favorable than any NJOY’s private-equity investors had ever seen. That day, as Craig Weiss started to do the math in his head, he couldn’t help feeling giddy: If 46 million Americans spend $90 billion a year on cigarettes, and just one percent of them could be captured by NJOY, that would mean $900 million in annual revenue. But here, 100 percent of respondents were saying that they were, as Weiss recalls, “likely or definitely going to buy our product.” Weiss walked up behind NJOY’s executive chairman, Elie Wurtman, placed his hands on his shoulders, and whispered jocularly into his ear: “We’re going to be rich.”

In December, when NJOY held a launch party for Kings at the Jane Hotel, in the West Village, guests encountered the shock of the old. For likely the first time since 2003, when Mayor Bloomberg banned smoking in bars and restaurants, a Manhattan barroom was full of people with little white sticks in their mouths and tendrils of vapor rising above the crowd. “It was the most extraordinary back-to-the-future moment,” says Geoff Vuleta, a product-innovation consultant who advises NJOY. “The entire room was smoking. It was like being back in the seventies. It looked like what 2020 will look like.”

Back in 2013, NJOY has a tricky marketing equation to balance. E-cigarettes have few constituent chemicals (mainly nicotine plus propylene glycol, which is commonly found in cough medicine), unlike the thousands present in tobacco and multiplied when it’s combusted, and they don’t produce secondhand smoke. The scientific consensus, so far, boils down to “these are a lot safer than regular cigarettes,” says Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health. But the likely healthier-ness of e-cigarettes, which could be a huge selling point, is the one thing NJOY and its competitors can’t talk about, since making health claims would justify an FDA crackdown. The company routinely deletes any health-related product testimonials (“NJOY helped me quit”) posted on the company’s Facebook page.

While NJOY does hope eventually to be able to make health claims—an industry grail that would turbocharge sales—the prohibition against doing so might have a paradoxical benefit. Explicit marketing of electronic cigarettes as a healthy choice could strip cigarettes of their sheen of romantic ruin once and for all.

Electronic cigarettes are “inoffensive” and “safer,” Hamilton Nolan wrote derogatorily on Gawker last year, in a post titled “Electronic Cigarettes Will Never Be Cool.” Where conventional cigarettes conveyed a seductive sense of danger, Nolan suggested, e-cigarettes communicate, “ ‘I can’t decide whether to stop or not.’ Nobody wants to fuck a wishy-washy school crossing guard.”

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.

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.

Influencer marketing also means working with celebrities, who can do a lot to remove the lame-product stigma. Matthew Perry has become an investor. Guy Oseary, Madonna’s manager and an investor in Vita Coco, was unhappily the son of two smokers, and he cold-called NJOY and ended up an investor, too, bringing Seth Rodsky along with him. They, in turn, began fielding feelers from stars. Slash was among those interested, but he could be problematic: He very publicly supposedly quit smoking in 2009. The right kind of celebrity would be one who could thread the needle of selling something new without its seeming newfangled, of selling a kind of smoking that was also not a kind of smoking, of selling something that had an implicit health appeal without ever making it explicit. Then, in early December, Courtney Love tweeted to her daughter: “but am trying these new e-cigs, the @NJOYecigs so far are the best ones ive tried. Maybe they should pay us for this plug?”

Two weeks after the Duckie Brown show, Love, clad in expensive leather pants, is standing in a conference room in Scottsdale, acting out a couple of her most recent smoking altercations for Beaver and Samonte. In September, she was in the bathroom during intermission at the Metropolitan Opera’s season opener at Lincoln Center. “And look,” Love says. “I don’t give a fuck. I’m going to get shit at in the bathroom by some of the ladies. It’s just going to happen. And I was wearing my big Marchesa ball gown, I’m doing my face—da da da da da—with my cigarette on the sink, as always. Okay, that’s how I do it. Whether it’s a lawyer’s office or this meeting or whatever. You can get a huge billboard of paparazzi shots of me grabbing a cigarette. But in this case, I was at the opera, and I put the cigarette on the sink. And I believe Patti Smith came in as well, ’cause she’s a huge opera fan. I can’t say I am, particularly this opera, but this was Lincoln Center, the Met, opening night, it was a big deal, and one woman came in and said, you know, da da da da da, ‘That really stinks,’ and I just ignore it and keep smiling. And then Patti was like, ‘Courtney, people aren’t going to forgive you forever.’ Patti Smith. You know, my soul. Patti Smith, my soul.”

A month and a half later, at a screening for the rock documentary Beware of Mr. Baker with André Balazs and Kick Kennedy, Love was once again doing her cigarette-on-the-sink routine, only this time it was an NJOY King. And when a woman walked in, with a child, and “starts bitching at me, I’m like, ‘This is a choice, this is not a cigarette.’ And she grabbed it and goes, ‘Yes it is.’ And I’m like”—Love dramatically exhales, as if in the woman’s face—“ ‘Not.’ ”

Love is here to talk about a possible deal with NJOY. She feels that already, from reducing her regular-cigarette usage, she’s recovered chunks of vocal range destroyed by smoking. On a recent song she recorded, “California,” “I was able to bring in my Stevie voice and hit a higher note than I’ve been able to hit in years. It’s really making me think about quitting. For the first time in my life.” (A cursory Internet search turns up several interviews, dating back as far as the nineties, in which Love is in the process of quitting or vowing to quit soon.) “And it’s giving me hope. Now I’m going to be hopelessly addicted to nicotine, so then there’s going to be that.”

“You already are,” Beaver points out.

Affiliating with Love would be just one limb of a many-tentacled influencer strategy, which itself is only one of several marketing components. In a few weeks, the company will buy the rights to a paparazzi shot of Dave Navarro smoking an NJOY. A nascar deal is not far off. Love, though, is a surprising, elegant way of introducing Kings to not just hipsters but middle-aged women, too. Her rock and movie and fashion cred, her indifference to indoor-smoking etiquette, and her history of public self-immolation and candor add up to a brand that stands for rebellion and self-reinvention, an oddly compelling fit for electronic cigarettes. “These women see their struggle in your struggle,” Beaver tells Love later.

Now she suggests she could sit outside the Mercer Hotel, which she does a lot anyway, but smoking NJOY Kings instead of her usual Marlboro Golds. “It’s not shilling, it’s kind of showing a different thing,” she says, clicking an NJOY case open and shut like it’s a Zippo. “Make it look as cool as Bette Davis.”

She and Beaver and Samonte brainstorm a viral video re-creating her opera moment. “What could be really funny is we do a reveal,” Beaver says. “Beautiful dress, beautiful hair … and then you turn around, and it’s Courtney Love. You say, ‘It’s not a cigarette, it’s an NJOY.’ ”

“But lots of chiffon,” Samonte says. “Lots of chiffon.”

“That’s a true story,” Love says. “That happened. I mean, not exactly that way. We were more like, ‘Fuck you.’ But ‘Relax, it’s an NJOY’ is much more mellow.”

Love likes that. “I’ve been only going out in the best clothes and really, really working a kind of more conservative angle. ’Cause I’m so sick of the bloody controversy. I’m over it. I’m 48, and I’m done.”

She practices “Relax, it’s an NJOY,” first regally, then as a bark. “Relax, it’s a fucking NJOY … No, sorry, that’s not going to work.” She tries it again, softly.

“I like the calm, relaxed Courtney Love,” Beaver says.

Love sings an opera high note.

And when, two months later, a digital ad featuring Love telling a symphony matron “Relax, it’s a fucking NJOY” surfaces on YouTube, it receives more than 200,000 views in its first week.

Smoke Without Fire