Update: A spokesperson from Sandbox & Co. reached out to clarify that Curious World, Hopster, TinyBop, and TeacherVision were not part of the Juul ad buy. Fatherly verified that the only property of Sandbox & Co to run the Juul ads was CoolMathGames. None of Sandbox & Co.’s other properties ran any ads for Juul.
Original story follows.
Think a trusted kids’ brand would never try to sell e-cigarettes to kids? Think again.
Yesterday, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey filed a lawsuit against Juul Labs, Inc., the creator of the eponymous e-cigarette, for “creating a youth epidemic by intentionally marketing and selling its e-cigarettes to young people.” This is not the first lawsuit of its kind against Juul Labs. The Attorney General joins other states in suing the company over their marketing practices, such as Arizona, California, Illinois, Minnesota, Mississippi, the District of Columbia, New York, and North Carolina. The state of Pennsylvania sued Juul earlier this week and alleged the company not only marketed the super-popular vapes to youths but also misled the public about just how addictive Juul is. (Juul has twice the amount of nicotine as the next, leading noncombustible tobacco device.)
The Massachusetts lawsuit states that in the early days of the company, Juul Labs purchased advertisements on websites like Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, Seventeen Magazine, and other educational websites for middle school and high school students like basic-mathematics.com, coolmath.com, math-aids.com, mathplayground.com, mathway.com, onlinemathlearning.com, purplemath-com., and socialstudiesforkids.com, as well as girl-focused gaming sites like dailydressupgames.com and girlsgogames.com. Other websites the e-cigarette brand marketed their products on? Collegeconfidential.com — one of the most popular websites for high school students applying to college — and websites for young children like allfreekidscrafts.com.
CoolMathGames’ umbrella company, Sandbox & Co, bills Coolmath.com as a website for kids ages 13-100 to learn math — and CoolmathGames.com as a brain-training site for everyone. Other sites under the Sandbox & Co portfolio include Poptropica, a website for kids 6-12, Curious World, a “edutainment” platform for children ages 2-7, Hopster, a pre-school learning app, and TinyBop, a website that sells STEM toys to kids ages 4-12, among others. They also host TeacherVision, a website that helps K-12 educators locate resources and that is used by more than one-third of all teachers in the United States, per their website. While it’s likely that Juul was unable to collect information on the people who used these websites — the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act disallows advertisers and companies from collecting data from users younger than 13 without their consent — the websites Juul ran ads on have clear, target audiences in their mission statement and in their actual use case, including brands like Seventeen Magazine, which is aimed at, well, 17-year-olds.
The lawsuit also alleges that Juul scrapped a marketing campaign aimed at older consumers — which featured retro-tech like a joystick and a clunky mobile telephone — which featured the tagline “The evolution of smoking.” The campaign was clearly focused on an older cohort. Instead, Juul Labs fired Cult Collective, the advertising agency behind the campaign, and hired another art director to create a campaign that featured young, attractive models posing as Juul-users in hip clothing. The lawsuit states that not only did Juul use these ads and ran them on educational websites like coolmathgames.com and Cartoon Network, but also that they tried to recruit celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Kristen Stewart, Luka Sabbat and Cara Delevingne to advertise their product on social media.
While the lawsuit is absolutely shocking, it is more of a continuation of what many already knew, not an exception to the rule. In August, the House Oversight and Reform Committee published a report that found that Juul Labs spent more than $200,000 to recruit Instagram influencers, where over 25 percent of users are aged 13-24. That same report also found that Juul helped set up a summer camp in Baltimore, Maryland for children and spent $134,000 to do so and that another near $90,000 went towards a youth activities program organized by local police. They also paid $10,000 for access to schools in the area — so they could survey children and get information about them.
One testimony to the Committee found that Juul representatives went to a high school in New York City and gave a speech to students — with no teachers present — that Juuls were “totally safe.” This direct and concerted effort to reach children and teenagers both in marketing campaigns and in funding summer camps and giving presentations to high school students undercuts the company’s claim that they market themselves as a cigarette alternative for those who are trying to quit traditional smoking, and are rather trying to hook a whole new generation of nicotine addicts. Juul, like every other tobacco manufacturer, has a proven interest in hooking young people: 9 in 10 smokers tried their first cigarette before they turn 18; less than five percent of smokers pick up the habit before they turn 25. There’s a reason why Juul scrapped plans to market themselves to people who already smoke: profit motives suggest they likely wanted a whole new generation of consumers — more than the already three million youths who use e-cigarettes today. And it also appears they’ve succeeded: from 2017 to 2018 alone, e-cigarette use skyrocketed 78 percent. (Juul was founded in 2017.)
And, per the Massachusetts lawsuit, they were pretty dedicated in helping 18-year-olds get their buzz on. Juul let 1,200 accounts attached to school email addresses, including high schools from several towns in Massachusetts, and, according to the lawsuit, shipped products to people with clearly fake names like one user named ‘PodGod.’ The lawsuit also mentioned that customer service representatives directed people younger than 21 — in some cities in Massachusetts, that is the legal smoking age — to get Juul products shipped to addresses that belonged to relatives and friends if they were younger than 21, and that Juul worked with 850 stores that the FDA cited for trying to sell tobacco products to underage teens.
While it is controversial that Juul engaged in these practices — and functionally lied about doing so, despite internal documents, government committee reports, and more, it’s perhaps more controversial that the companies that own Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and the myriad of educational websites that host math games and that are used almost exclusively by school-aged kids and elementary students allowed advertising for Juul to be on their website. Juul has a clear motive in trying to get to kids. It would be foolish to think or suggest that their morals would come in the way of evidence-backed marketing practices that get their products in front of the eyes of kids browsing the internet. But perhaps companies that bill themselves as dedicated to being safe spaces for kids to learn would think twice before advertising addictive products to them.
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