Data shows anti-vaping campaigns with traditional approaches will go up in smoke

Applying a public health campaign mindset of the '90s and Noughties to the modern day vaping crisis would be a car crash.

The data shows fresh thinking, powered by rapid, credible research of the vaping community, will power greater cut-through and more effective messaging, argues Dan Richardson, head of data and insights, at Yahoo AUSEA.

For decades, road safety ads’ ‘shock and awe’ tactics were the modus operandi of public health campaigns. They often featured young men speeding or drink driving, winding up in a gory accident that killed themselves or their mates.

These were big budget multi-million dollar campaigns sought after by the hottest advertising agencies, and often scooping up plenty of silverware and accolades along the way.

The problem was, as Campaign Edge ECD Dee Madigan once pointed out, they never really worked; it turns out that ‘invincible’ young men were not worried about wrapping their parent’s Toyota Camry into a light pole; a far more effective approach was a speeding ad that poked fun at their manhood.

Years of blood, guts and gore could have been replaced with far more effective work if those responsible had done their homework and used insights to inform them of messaging that cuts through.

Fast forward to 2024, and we not only have different public health and safety issues that risk using similar tactics, but new tools providing sharp, real-time insights that can turbo-charge campaigns, such as the current crackdown on vaping.

Over the next few years, $364 million will be invested in programs to reduce vaping and smoking, with the Government already committing $63 million to tackle the issue in the last budget.

State and Federal health departments, and their agency partners, are now grappling with the most effective ways to discourage people from vaping and the best media channels to reach them. Cutting through the haze of this problem, one thing is clear: traditional quit smoking campaign approaches simply won’t cut it.

Yahoo’s PurpleLab, through its new Ask Me Anything tool, recently surveyed 700 Gen Z vapers over a two-week period.

The results dispel some common myths about vaping and how to effectively target this audience segment- and shed light on how we can utilise quick-turnaround surveys to inform our campaign approaches.

A surprisingly small percentage (16%) vaped because it was safer than smoking, which indicates that few are using it to wean away from smokes – meaning it’s a whole new addiction epidemic. It found that the leading reason why young people vape is to relieve stress (chosen by 40%) followed by enticing flavour ranges (30%), tobacco addiction (25%) and it being cheaper than cigarettes (24%).

The study found that disposable vapes (58%) were the most popular products by some distance, and that the most common place to vape is at home (45%), followed by bars and clubs (34%) and other social events (34%).

Nearly two-thirds of Gen Z vapers had tried to quit or reduce their vaping habits but half of them had found it tough to kick their nicotine addictions.

Importantly, the study found many young vapers are thirsty for information about the long-term consequences of vaping to help them quit, and the most effective messaging would be real life testimonials from other vapers, positive messaging about a healthier lifestyle, and support from friends and family. This indicates that using the shock and awe tactics of road safety and quit smoking ads in bygone eras would not work with young people today.

Another insight from the study is that vaping takes place across all parts of the day, so an omnichannel approach would be more effective than running a campaign across primetime TV. In fact, any campaign would lean heavily into TikTok, Instagram and the other digital channels where GenZ audiences are found. V

apers also over-index in categories including gaming, fashion and beauty, sport, tertiary education and the LGBTQ+ community, and are more likely to listen to podcasts and be exposed to outdoor ads – key clues for where media dollars should be funnelled.

These findings are consistent with focus group studies carried out by Michelle Jongenelis, an associate professor in psychological sciences at the University of Melbourne.

Jongenelis found that vapers wanted to learn more about the chemicals used in vapes and how these impact health. Many of the teenagers studied found current anti-vaping ads were “not scaring people”, “not relatable in any way” and “not reaching our generation”.

The recent campaign from Cancer NSW via Bastion appears to hit most of the above points in terms of the way it structures insights, has young people explaining the impact of their habits and is delivered in the places they’re actually frequenting, cinema, out of home and digital channels rather than a big TV buy.

Campaign planning and media strategies happen at lightning speed these days, and too often we’re being forced to rely on gut instinct and intuition to make decisions based on the way we’ve done things before, rather than take the time to find fresh insights.

That’s mainly because research has traditionally taken months to produce and in this day and age is often out of date before it’s even implemented. But we can see that by gathering the right insights we can inform our strategies more effectively and fuel new creative ideas that will actually make a difference. And that’s why new tools like PurpleLabs are increasingly important because they can really help to sharpen all of the key elements and make sure money is spent in the right places and with the right kind of messaging.

When it comes to big public health campaigns where public money is being spent, getting it right is imperative. Arming yourselves with the right insights to make the best creative and media decisions needs to be a top priority.


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