Image from NPR: http://www.npr.org/2014/03/03/284006424/e-cigarette-critics-worry-new-ads-will-make-vaping-cool-for-kids
Blu Electronic Cigarettes markets themselves as a healthier, cooler alternative to tobacco cigarettes. To that end, in 2014 the company released a full page advertisement featuring the body of a woman in order to attract primarily young, white consumers. This advertisement is in a format that is suited to magazines, webpages, and billboards. It was found in Sports Illustrated magazine and on Sports Illustrated’s website, which suggests that the advertisement is intended to target men. However, the images and text in this advertisement are strongly in line with historical strategies intended to market cigarettes to women, which suggests that women are also an intended target. Either way, Blu’s advertisement relies on and perpetuates images of sexualized femininity in order to sell their product, and in doing so finds a place in the continuing relationship between women and cigarette marketing.
Instead of burning tobacco, electronic cigarettes heat and vaporize liquids that contain nicotine, which the user then inhales[i]. In this advertisement, Blu ignores promoting the supposed comparative health benefits of electronic cigarettes or their ‘cool’ factor, and instead opts for the lowest common denominator of advertising – sex sells! The advertisement is dominated by the body of a young, thin, white woman at a beach in a bikini bottom labeled ‘Blu Electronic Cigarettes’. She is only shown from just below the rib cage to halfway down her thighs, centered on her groin. An image of the product itself occupies a small space in the lower right corner of the page, opposite the slogan ‘Slim. Charged. Ready to Go.’, directions to the company’s website, and health disclaimers in the smallest of small print.
The focus on the model’s sexual appeal instead of the product being sold reinforces the sexualization of femininity in American culture. The model’s genitalia, figure, and race are all highlighted as elements of her physical attractiveness. The viewer’s gaze is drawn directly to the model’s crotch, where the company’s name is stamped across her bikini bottom. Thus, the Blu Electronic Cigarettes brand is literally attached to the vagina. The image is constructed so that you can’t miss that association. If, by some chance, the viewer missed the model’s groin on the first look, all the lines of focus direct the gaze back to the model’s vagina. The model’s fingers, the insides of her thighs, the packaging of the cigarette recharge kit and the jewelry in the model’s belly button all act as arrows pointing the viewer’s attention straight back to her vagina. The focus on the model’s genitalia sexualizes her femininity. When one recalls the phallic shape of a cigarette itself, the sexual overtones of the image are overwhelming. In this context, the words in the slogan ‘Charged’ and ‘Ready to Go’ take on a sexual connotation, suggesting the primary importance of the female body is its sexual potential. For the purpose of this advertisement, the model’s function is entirely for her sex appeal. A further examination of the model shows that she is thin around the waist, and her impossibly photo-shopped ‘thigh gap’ is prominently displayed. An implicit comparison between the slimness of the model and the slimness of the cigarettes is drawn by word ‘Slim’ in the slogan. According to Blu, sexy women must be thin. Men viewing this advertisement internalize that thin women are sexy women, and women themselves learn that they must slim down for men to find them physically attractive. Thus, this advertisement reinforces the notion that thinness is required for sexual attractiveness in women. Finally, the model is a white woman, which perpetuates the default of whiteness as the sexual ideal in American culture.
Unfortunately, Blu’s advertising strategy appears effective, as young people are exposed to electronic cigarette advertisements and are using electronic cigarettes is larger and larger numbers. Even though tobacco cigarettes cannot be advertised to minors, those restrictions do not yet apply to electronic cigarettes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 69% of middle school and high school students in America viewed electronic cigarette advertisements in 2014[ii]. All this advertising is having an effect. Again from the CDC, from 2013 to 2014 the usage of electronic cigarettes among American middle school and high school students tripled, increasing to 3.9% of middle school students and 13.4% of high school students[iii]. Aside from the well-known adverse effects of youth nicotine use, these numbers show that the next generation of Americans are still witnessing and likely internalizing outrageously sexualized images of women as the norm of glamorous, sexy and cool.
This advertisement fits comfortably in the long history of cigarette advertisements aimed at women. In 1928, Edward Bernays orchestrated an Easter Day parade featuring “a number of genteel women” publicly smoking in a New York City on Fifth Avenue. He then ran a series of advertisements for Lucky Strike cigarettes aimed at women, knowing that women were an untapped, potentially lucrative client base. Thus began the co-opting of women smoking as a sign of defiance by cigarette companies and advertising agencies. Early slogans included “You’ve come a long way, baby” from Lucky Strike, referencing the women’s liberation movement of the 1920s[iv]. In the 1930s, A Chesterfield advertisement suggested that, “Women started to vote… just about the time they began to smoke”. Philip Morris followed suit, exclaiming “Believe in Yourself!” above the image of a glamorous smoking woman. These advertisements also capitalized on sexual norms, suggesting that smoking would keep women skinny with the slogan “Reach for a Lucky instead of a Sweet”[v]. Much later, Camel released a brand called Camel No. 9, designed to evoke the glamor and sex appeal of perfumes and pop songs. Of course, all of the women shown in the advertisements were thin white women. The advertising succeeded in changing cultural norms. Women began smoking in larger numbers as they saw smoking as a glamorous, independent act. The effects carry over to this day. Twenty percent of modern women smoke[vi], and in modern culture, smoking can give women an air of power and eloquence, as seen in the television show Mad Men and the feature length movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Blu Electronic Cigarette’s advertisement fits in the pattern of previous cigarette ads aimed at women. It markets its product to women with vague allusions to women’s sexual liberation, promises of thinness, and the allure of the white sexual ideal.
The advertisement promoting Blu Electronic Cigarettes perpetuates the social norm of white sexualized femininity. The product is advertised solely by an attractive, thin, white model, or more precisely, the model’s barely concealed vagina. In doing so, Blu finds a comfortable place in the tradition of marketing cigarettes to women by co-opting women’s liberation and promising that their product will make women sexier, skinnier, and cooler.
[i] “How VaporFi E-Cigarettes and Vaporizers Work.” How VaporFi E-Cigarettes and Vaporizers Work. VaporFi, Inc., International Vapor Group, Inc., n.d. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <http://www.vaporfi.com/how-it-works/>.
[ii] “E-cigarette Ads Reach Nearly 7 in 10 Middle and High-school Students.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 05 Jan. 2016. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <http:www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/p0416-e-cigarette-use.html>
[iii] “E-cigarette Use Triples among Middle and High School Students in Just One Year.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16 Apr. 2015. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2015/p0416-e-cigarette-use.html>.
[iv] Lee, Jennifer 8. “Big Tobacco’s Spin on Women’s Liberation.” City Room Big Tobaccos Spin on Women’s Liberation Comments. The New York Times Company, 10 Oct. 2008. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/10/10/big-tobaccos-spin-on-womens-liberation/?_r=0>.
[v] Christian, Wendy. “Torches of Freedom: Women and Smoking Propaganda – Sociological Images.” Sociological Images Torches of Freedom Women and Smoking Propaganda Comments. W. W. Norton & Company, 27 Feb. 2007. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2012/02/27/torches-of-freedom-women-and-smoking-propaganda/>.
[vi] “Women and Smoking: A Report of the Surgeon General.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 Aug. 2002. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr5112a4.htm>.