California Tobacco Control Program Addresses Outbreak of Vaping Illness

Duncan Channon was also behind the previous 'Flavors Hook Kids' effort

Female blowing smoke out of her nose while holding a vape pen
According to the CDC, there have been 1,604 cases of lung illness associated with vaping reported from 49 states, as of Oct. 22. Tobacco Free CA

With an epidemic of serious, sometimes fatal cases of lung disease, the California Tobacco Control Program felt the need to educate the public on vaping through a new campaign.

It’s not hard to understand the sense of urgency. According to the CDC, which the CTCP worked closely with to ensure its information on the issue was up to date, there have been 1,604 cases of lung illness associated with vaping reported from 49 states, as of Oct. 22, including 34 fatalities.

Duncan Channon executive creative director Anne Elisco-Lemme explained that with the proliferation of lung illnesses connected to vaping, CTCP asked the agency to create a campaign around the issue as fast as possible, balancing the need for time efficiency with crafting a compelling and persuasive message while working with partner agencies APartnership, Acento and Muse to ensure the campaign takes cultural nuances into account and reaches the widest audience possible.

Titled “Outbreak,” the effort focuses on the startling developments around lung illness as youth use of electronic cigarette devices continues to proliferate. It attempts to reach the target comprising the majority of hospitalized patients—young men—while continuing to speak to parents.

“It Goes Fast” is targeted more at the latter, opening with the alarming statistic that vaping among high schoolers jumped nearly 80% in 2018 and showing a number of students using e-cigarettes at home and in school before concluding with the link between vaping and lung illness in 2019 and driving viewers to a landing page where they can read information from the CDC on the outbreak.

That page is related to Duncan Channon’s previous campaign for the CTCP examining how flavored products hook young users, titled “Flavors Hook Kids.”

“We want parents to understand this problem isn’t going away and we need to stand by our kids and protect them even more than we realized,” Elisco-Lemme said, adding that the difficulties of nicotine addiction make the issue more complicated than many parents realize. “Everyone has been thinking about the long-term effects,” she added. “Nobody saw this coming.”

“Hit” is directed at the demographic hardest hit by the outbreak. It opens on a series of young men and women vaping, in both social situations and by themselves, before a shot of a plume of exhaled vapor transitions to a young man being taken away in an ambulance. The ad utilized real imagery of those who have suffered from vape-related illnesses and highlights the potential for induced coma before driving audiences to a, a different page providing CDC information on vape-related lung disease.

“Hearing there are people hospitalized is scary, but it can feel a bit remote from your own personal situation. One of the things that was really important to us was to feature real patients,” Elisco-Lemme said. “Showing peers hooked up to ventilators makes it all the more tangible, as opposed to hearing about it.”

She added that many of these patients previously felt the same way the target audience of young men did, with an attitude that it wouldn’t happen to them.

“It speaks to how blindsided they were to be a part of this. You’ve got to be pretty freaked out to allow your most vulnerable images … to be a part of a campaign like this,” she said. “I think it’s really courageous.”

The ads will run on broadcast as well as digital channels such as YouTube, with planning around the latter particularly important in reaching a younger audience.

In addition to a fast turnaround, the campaign was a challenge for Duncan Channon in that the agency was tasked with creating a message around a topic that is not yet fully understood.

“That was the biggest challenge for us,” Elisco-Lemme said. “What we really needed to do was be cautious about what we were saying, to not feel alarmist, to put out to the public what we know, what the CDC is telling us.”

“We have to be responsible for the message we’re putting out,” she added. “We’re representing the Department of Health, so our job is to be factually accurate but as compelling as possible.”

Given the nature of the issue and the fact that much still remains unknown about the outbreak of lung illness, it’s fair to assume that CTCP and Duncan Channon will revisit the topic in the future.

“This was phase one,” Elisco-Lemme said.

@ErikDOster Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.