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E-cigarette retailers use Pokémon Go to peddle their products

The practice takes place years after FTC ruled cartoon characters should not be used to sell tobacco

phone depicting ad of Pokémon and vape device
E-cigarette shops and vape retailers saw an opportunity to promote their product, according to USC research. (Photo/Susanica Tam)

Streets, parks and beaches were packed last summer with people staring at and tapping their phones — they were addicted to the augmented reality (AR) game Pokémon Go.

Some e-cigarette shops and vape retailers saw an opportunity to push their product, according to a USC-led article published in the journal Tobacco Control. Some highlights:

  • An e-cigarette retailer urged customers to post a picture of their Pokémon and vape device on Facebook for a chance to win a new e-cigarette device.
  • Tweets from e-cigarette retailers combined deals with Pokémon Go: “Check out our Pokémon Go sale! Level 10=5 percent, Level 20=10 percent OFF STORE WIDE!!!!”
  • Promotional events integrated Pokémon Go gaming, food, music and vaping.
  • Yelp, a platform of crowdsourced business reviews, provides app users with a “PokéStop Nearby” filter so people could replenish their supply of game goodies. Using this filter, USC researchers identified 19 vape shops in Los Angeles that were within range of a PokéStop.

Major tobacco once used cartoon characters such as Joe Camel to market their cigarettes, leading the Federal Trade Commission to say these ads caused substantial injury to the health and safety of children and adolescents. Now the federal government prohibits tobacco advertising targeting people younger than 18, including the use of cartoons.

USC experts commented on e-cigarette retailers using augmented reality games to promote vape devices and liquids.

Should major tobacco and vape retailers have the same marketing restrictions?

“Major tobacco companies have signed a legal agreement that they would not use cartoons and interactive games in their marketing because it could attract youth. Recently the FDA deemed that e-cigarettes — like conventional cigarettes — are tobacco products. It makes sense to apply the same types of marketing restrictions to these newer products.”

Matthew Kirkpatrick is an assistant professor of research preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and an associate director of the USC-Health, Emotion & Addiction Laboratory.

Understanding the link between gaming, e-cigarette marketing and vaping

“This marketing strategy looks like past ones where cigarette companies used cartoons and placement in videogames to advertise. As augmented reality games grow in popularity, public health professionals will need to understand how video gaming is being linked to e-cigarette marketing and use.”

Jennifer Unger investigates how messages about emerging tobacco products are spread to vulnerable populations through social media. She is a professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and a co-investigator in the USC Tobacco Center of Regulatory Science.

Augmented reality introduces new privacy concerns

“Increasingly, augmented reality is starting to deliver: It offers the ability to personalize marketing to specific users.

“As companies try to learn as much about the user as possible to personalize ads to make them more effective, privacy concerns will be a big feature. When the consumer shares the message rather than the brand, authenticity increases and cost is lowered. AR is considered new and cool, which helps promote any marketing message.”

Mathew Curtis is a clinical associate professor of communication at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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