Last week, I received a friendly yet professional email from a publicity firm called Locust Street saying it was contracted by e-cigarette startup (and perfect companion to a black cherry White Claw) Juul. This would be normal — I get a lot of pitches from PR agents because I’m a reporter — but it wasn’t sent to me as a reporter. It was sent to me because, uh, I’m a customer of the juul.com website. (You can’t buy mango pods in physical stores anymore. Don’t judge me.)
Locust Street’s email read:
My name is [redacted] and I am an Outreach Specialist with Locust Street Community Solutions. I’m reaching out to you on behalf of Juul Labs, who has contracted with Locust Street to support its services and collect success stories from New Yorkers who have made the switch to Juul from combustible cigarettes. We received your information as a Juul user from Juul Labs and we are only using this contact information to support our services on behalf of the company and to discuss your “switch story.”
I attempted to reach you by phone, but I’m emailing in case this is an easier way to get in touch. I hope that we can talk to discuss your experience with Juul products.
Please feel free to give me a call back at [redacted] or reply to this email if you’d like to share your story!
Juul is indeed sharing customer information — names, email addresses, and phone numbers — with a PR firm that specializes in grassroots political messaging for business clients, Locust Street Group, a publicity firm based in Washington, DC. A representative for Juul confirmed that the company hired Locust Street for a public affairs campaign in New York, where the state government is currently mulling a ban on flavored e-cigarettes.
It’s rare, but not unheard of, for a company to reach out to customers to find personal testimonials for advertising campaigns. I’ve never had someone call me up and ask me to participate in an advertisement based on an order I placed online, but certainly this thing happens. However, because I view my juuling as a sort of shameful addiction, it felt unnerving to be put on blast by a publicist about it.
It also didn’t seem clear how this firm would be handling my data — are they keeping it for good? Will they contact me about other campaigns? What data exactly, other than my email, did they receive? Do they know that I prefer mango pods?
Juul very much would like you (and your nice local government officials) to know that Juul products are made to help adult smokers quit cigarettes, and certainly are not a fun awesome delicious vapey stick that makes teens look cool and badass. It is not surprising that the company wants its advertisements to feature stories from real people gushing about how they were never able to quit smoking and were so happy to switch to something safer.
But that is not my “success story.” In fact, my story is exactly what Juul doesn’t want to hear. I wasn’t a smoker before I first bought a Juul. I bought a Juul because, as a thirtysomething, I wanted to do what the cool young people were doing. I started juuling because juuling is a meme, and I wanted in. Celebs do it! Look at Sophie Turner — we stan a vape queen!
If you are thinking right now, wow, you are literally a Hall of Fame dumbass, well I say to you, am I any dumber than people who take up smoking real cigarettes? (I should note here that even though juuling makes you look awesome and cool, BuzzFeed News does not encourage teens to start juuling. [Editor’s note: Or anyone.])
And for a while, it was great. It makes you feel tingly, and my Juul was the hit of every party — everyone wanted to try it. I was so gung ho about juuling as a lifestyle choice that I even bought Juul pod earrings on Etsy (I was complimented on them by the most stylish young person in the BuzzFeed office, a huge personal win for me).
But after a few months, I quit. I noticed juuling irritated my throat and decided the joke had gone on long enough. I assumed this phase of my life was over, until I received the email.
The tobacco industry has come up with inventive workarounds for how to get their customers’ data, despite most cigarette packs being purchased anonymously at physical stores. There were loyalty programs where you’d get points like Camel Cash in each pack to buy a branded leather jacket or ashtray. I’m old enough to have gone to bars before the smoking ban in New York City, and it was a common occurrence to see reps from cigarette brands at the bars handing out free packs in exchange for signing up for their mailing list.
Because of the regulations that limit how e-cigarettes are advertised and marketed, primary-source customer data on them is valuable. So much so that Juul’s competitor, Blu, ran a dubious Instagram campaign that didn’t outwardly appear to be about vaping and offered a chance to win a cash prize. But to register for a chance to win that prize, you needed to provide some personal information: name, birthday, zip code, phone number, email, and Instagram handle.
How Juul manages its customer data with third parties is hardly the most controversial or newsworthy thing about the company at a time when the state of Michigan just banned flavored pods and people are dying from a mysterious vaping illness (though it’s looking likely the illness is from other forms of vaping). But customer data is valuable — and we should care when controversial companies are using our data for political advertising campaigns.
Worst of all, I didn’t even get any free mango pods.