E-cigarettes are bringing tobacco products back onto U.K. TV for the first time in almost 50 years this week, with the two major players in the market braving potential hostility from British consumers as they battle to increase awareness of their brands.
E-Lites will appear on prime-time TV this weekend, in a 30-second commercial created by Birmingham-based McCann Central that will introduce many consumers to the concept of electronic cigarettes for the first time.
The brand message is "You don't know what you're missing." In the spot, a father furtively pops out for a cigarette during a family party, and misses his baby's first steps, complete with a Gangnam Style dance move. When the father comes back and asks, "What have I missed?" he is met with silence as the message, "E-Lites: You don't know what you're missing" appears on screen.
Trevor Field, E-Lites' marketing director, is aware that viewers might be shocked to see this ad. "Unfortunately the category is not fully understood," he said. "The wider reason for the debate is because it looks like smoking, but the important thing is that E-Lites are 99% less harmful than normal cigarettes."
Mr. Field said that E-Lites and McCann spent 14 months working closely with Clearcast, the U.K. body that pre-approves all TV ads, to find a script that was appropriate and met with Clearcast approval. Nobody is seen smoking in the ad, and E-Lites are not allowed to make any claims about health.
Rival SkyCig has a more enigmatic spot, by Povey Sindall Media, a U.K. agency that specializes in introducing new companies to TV advertising. In the ad for SkyCig's Skystart brand, airing on just one satellite channel, young people hang out as a voiceover says that life is about moments and sharing. The ad ends with the words "Skystart Electronic Cigarette."
Damien Scott, U.K. commercial director of SkyCig, spent seven months creating the spot. He said, "It's been a long process because this is a new category. It's all down to the nature of the ad -- it doesn't even hint at smoking but it lets the viewer embrace the concept without throwing it in their face. "
Both spots comply with the Advertising Standards Authority regulations, which say that ads for products that share a name or any other feature with a tobacco product -- even if they contain no tobacco -- can only be advertised to adults and can't refer to smoking, promote tobacco or smoking, or include a design that might be associated with a tobacco product.
But this doesn't mean that the British public, who frequently bombard the ASA with complaints about ads for a wide variety of products, won't protest. A spokeswoman from charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) said her group isn't planning to orchestrate complaints to the ASA. "There is a role for them as an alternative to smoking. We want to see the products properly regulated so that consumers are entitled to basic information, like levels of nicotine, that they would get from any other product."
In the U.K., the status of e-cigarettes is still being debated. Discussions at the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency are ongoing about whether they should be licensed as smoking cessation therapies and therefore classified as medicines.
A decision is expected in May, but E-Lites' Mr. Field said, "We don't believe we're a medicinal product. It is not a cessation device. The options used to be quit or die, but now there is a third option, harm reduction."
In the U.S., e-cigarettes are classed as tobacco products, so they can't promote their health benefits over normal cigarettes. Unlike tobacco companies, however, e-cigarettes don't face restrictions on where they are allowed to advertise, and could appear on TV.