“Brands were eventually saying, ‘We have a budget. Would you be interested in doing this for money?’ ” Zayas told CNN.
In September 2017, she was invited to a campaign featuring Juul. The email, which she shared with CNN, came from an influencer marketing firm called Lumanu, with which she’d worked on other social media campaigns. A representative asked her to try Juul’s “premium e-cigarette and share your experience on your blog,” saying it was an opportunity to work together “over several months.”
“They liked my edgy style and that I appealed to the younger market,” Zayas said.
Zayas, who had been an occasional cigarette smoker, hadn’t had a good experience with e-cigarettes in the past but found the Juul easier to use, and she liked the flavors. She had tried it a week before Lumanu contacted her — coincidentally, she said.
“When Juul reached out to me at first, I was a little hesitant because even though it’s my brand, I do what I want with it,” she added. “Am I going to get backlash because I’m talking about smoking?”
The response was positive. “This sounds fun,” one user commented. “You make smoking look so good,” wrote another.
Juul Labs spokeswoman Victoria Davis told CNN in an emailed statement that it ended its influencer program “earlier this year.” She added that the “paid influencer program, which was never formalized, was short-lived” and involved “fewer than 10 paid influencers, who were all smokers or former smokers” 28 and up, and who were collectively paid less than $10,000.
Davis said that the influencers “had age appropriate audiences (21+).” Zayas, whose posts are publicly visible, shared with CNN that 5% of her current Instagram audience are 13 to 17, though the majority are 18 to 35.
Juul also had an “affiliate program,” which offered commissions for purchases made through referral links on websites and social media. Davis said that program included “less than 20 active affiliates” as of September 2018, the month before it ended.
The company ended that program on October 31, according to an email shared with CNN by Vapor Vanity, a website that posts reviews and information about e-cigarettes. In the email, a member of Juul’s affiliate marketing team said that the program was “on hold indefinitely until further notice” and that the company would “continue to evaluate the program.”
Though Davis said the influencer and affiliate programs were small, critics argue that the even small amounts of Juul-related content are able to spread widely on the internet.
“Social media works differently than other stuff. You don’t need that many people,” said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “A small number of people who are popular and get reposted can reach a very large number of people.”
Davis said none of the accounts in the study were part of Juul’s affiliate program. And Juul worked with social media platforms to get these accounts taken down, she added.
“However, it’s very late in the game,” he said.
Social butterfly effect
Part of that marketing effort included paying influencers to post about the device.
Zayas was not the only influencer posting about Juul.
CNN found personalized links tied to Zayas and other influencers that referenced Lumanu, which Davis said Juul hired for “potential content engagement strategies.”
These URLs — which contain the terms “source=lumanu” and “campaign=juul_influencer” — can be used by Lumanu to track how many people click on those links. Lumanu did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment.
“They asked if I knew about Juul, and I literally had one in my mouth,” said Ellner, 31, who started smoking cigarettes at 16, when her “rebellious phase” coincided with Camel’s piña colada flavor, which is no longer available in the US.
She declined to tell CNN how much she was paid, but she stands by her work — and doesn’t believe that Juul targeted teenagers.
“Teenagers are going to be teenagers,” Ellner said. “Are we ever going to be able to stop kids from doing things they are not supposed to?”
Jackler said he doesn’t necessarily believe Juul intentionally targeted underaged kids in its marketing, but its appeal to kids was obvious early on, and the company didn’t take early steps to prevent that.
“The company claims that they didn’t know” that the product appealed to underage kids who began using it in large numbers, Jackler said.
“I don’t believe that, not for a minute, because they’re also a very digital, very analytical company,” he added. “They know their market. They know what they’re doing.”
Like, comment, share
The company engaged with social media users in other ways, commenting on posts, offering discounts on products, using popular hashtags and reposting photos of Juuls taken by other users.
In one instance this year, CNN found that Juul’s Instagram reposted a photo of a Juul in an outstretched hand taken by a 17-year-old, tagging him in the description. He was not a paid influencer, but the company’s official account still follows him.
Jackler said the company “professed over and over that they weren’t interested in targeting [underage] people, when in fact their way of promoting their product had great appeal to young people and caused a market fervor.”
The bulk of this content is not sponsored, experts say. Some social media content creators told CNN they posted Juul content in an effort to gain followers through a trend or because they genuinely believed in the product.
Still, Juul has deleted much of its old social media in waves — an effort to stop underage use, it says. But many of its posts are still archived by the Stanford research group, which CNN reviewed.
Ashley Gould, chief administrative officer at Juul Labs, told CNN in June that the company has also been working to remove outside social media content created by or aimed at youth. The company has maintained that its product is intended to convert adult former smokers to what Juul describes as a less-harmful alternative.
“We were completely surprised by the youth usage of the product,” she told CNN.
“One of the scary things about social media is that it doesn’t take a lot of money,” said Myers, whose anti-tobacco advocacy group has documented Juul’s marketing efforts. “And if you hit the right people doing it, then it just takes off.”
Juul representatives say the company has played a minimal role in the vast amount of Juul-related content online.
“There is no question that this user-generated social media content is linked to the appeal of vaping to underage users,” he added.
When Zayas was contacted by Lumanu, she said she wanted to write honestly about her personal journey with sobriety. She had been an on-and-off smoker, but when she got sober, “not having a vice, I leaned on cigarettes again,” she said.
Juul seemed to be another option. But according to Zayas, the company didn’t want her writing about her struggle with alcohol.
“They didn’t want me talking about sobriety,” Zayas said. “They wanted me to talk about the product, the shape of the device and how cool it was.
“They just wanted me to create lifestyle content.”
She said she doesn’t regret participating in the social media campaign when she did, because it reflected a product she was using in her daily life. But when an “influencer marketing manager” approached her in January 2018 to be part of a video testimonial campaign, she had stopped vaping and turned down the offer, she said.
At least one of those ex-smokers was former Juul Influencer Ellner. She met the Juul team in San Francisco as she was moving there and ended up doing two shoots, which she said were unpaid and separate from the influencer campaign.
Neither Ellner nor Awkwafina is listed on Juul’s “community” page of former smokers’ testimonials.
Jackler said the company’s current marketing strategy is nowhere close to where it began. Before the current campaign focusing on switching former smokers, the company’s marketing was “manifestly youth-oriented,” Jackler said.
“It showed 20-something models dressed in fashionably casual clothing,” he added. “They’re the exact kind of young adults that teenagers find appealing and wish to aspire and be like.”
Many ads emphasized fruity flavors and sometimes oozed with sex appeal, experts say.
Old job listings suggest the pursuit of social media influencers goes back those early days, as well. Around that time, PAX Labs — the company that would later give rise to Juul Labs — sought an “influencer marketing intern” who would court influencers and encourage favorable content about the product on social media.
“Their business model is to get the devices in people’s hands because the way they make their money is through … selling the nicotine-rich Juul pods over and over to customers,” Jackler said.
In June, Gould told CNN that the company took criticism of its 2015 launch campaign seriously. “That campaign in the end, we felt, did not help us achieve our mission of speaking to adult smokers to provide them information about an alternative to cigarettes,” she said.
Some advocates say Juul’s marketing and social media response is too little, too late.
“Once you get kids doing it, you don’t have to pay for it,” Myers said. “It takes off on its own, and you continue to get the financial benefit.
“It is 10 times dropping a rock in a still pond; the ripple just keeps going.”
Jackler agreed, saying that the company fostered a social media phenomenon that took on a life of its own — and continues to introduce young people to its product.
“Hashtag-Juul lives on,” he said.
A few years ago, Zayas worked at an influencer agency similar to Lumanu, called Socialyte, where she managed other bloggers. She was the liaison between influencers and brands, negotiating rates and the sponsored content, she said.
Brands will often reach out to influencers like her multiple times if a campaign does well, she said.
And this can be big business, according to Kevin Popovic, director of the Idea Lab at San Diego State University and founder of Ideahaus, a creative communications agency.
When looking for influencers to promote their products, companies scour the internet to find popular people and websites whose audiences the brand hopes to connect with, he said.
“It’s a tactic that most PR agencies have used for years,” Popovic said, “contacting people of a certain influence in order to shape the market perception of a brand or product.
“You have to realize that the only reason people want to do business with you is because they think you have something they want,” he said.
Unlike other media such as print or television, social media offer companies detailed information on the efficacy of their campaigns. “Many times, we’ll give influencers a unique URL that has tracking abilities on it,” Popovic said, allowing companies to better assess the return on investment.
But critics think it’s inappropriate to apply those high-tech marketing techniques to a substance like nicotine.
“They’re not selling widgets,” Myers said. “They’re selling a highly addictive product.”
When asked whether Juul was ceasing any influencer programs in other countries and about its social media channels that remain active abroad, Juul spokeswoman Davis said, “Each country has unique rules and obligations when it comes to these types of activities, and we will assess the regulations for each country to see what might be appropriate.”
“The notion that young people are that different … it’s inconsistent with the evidence,” Myers said. “The kind of imagery they were using in social media appeals to young people in country after country.
“It’s exactly what we showed the cigarette companies we’re doing.”
The company halted the program following a backlash from health and education advocates.
“We stopped distribution in response to feedback from those who thought our efforts were being misunderstood,” Davis previously told CNN, describing the effort as a “short-lived initiative designed to provide educators with current information on vaping products in general to supplement existing tobacco prevention education.”
The proposed changes do not include mint, menthol and tobacco flavors, however. Gottlieb said he wanted to leave the door open for adults who might use these products to quit smoking cigarettes, “but it can’t come at the expense of addicting a generation of kids on nicotine,” he told CNN last month.
Myers said, “The FDA has concluded that the level of addiction it is seeing among youthful e-cigarette users is so disturbing and so unprecedented that it needs to at least ask whether we need a solution that goes beyond what we ever did with cigarettes.”
When it comes to vaping among adults, consumers and health experts have been locked in a contentious debate: Some see it as a smoking cessation tool for adults, but others say there’s no good evidence to support this.
Gould, Juul’s chief administrative officer, told CNN, “Juul is a switching product, not a cessation product, and it is intended for adult smokers to enable them to switch from combustible cigarettes.”
Ellner says she’s still a fan of the device and feels like Juul’s uptake among kids is “affecting a business that had other [positive] intentions.”
“It’s a bummer,” she said.
“I was getting physically sick. Every time I put it down, I would pick it back up,” Zayas said. “As someone who suffers from addiction, it just wasn’t a good idea for me to smoke the Juul.
“I still wake up every morning craving the Juul, but they are less and less each day.”
CNN’s Christina Zdanowicz and Ben Tinker contributed to this report.