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How to Use the Vaping and Juuling Trend to Teach Media Literacy

Help students recognize and analyze age-old advertising tricks.

Tanner Higgin | October 4, 2019

It's estimated that 3 million students vape, a shocking stat to many but not to teachers, who have seen it take over school campuses firsthand. Many of these young people use one e-cigarette or vaping product in particular: Juul. These devices, which mimic the design of USB flash drives, have secured 75% of a rapidly growing market. Juul, like other vaping products, has been marketed as a safer alternative to tobacco, lacking smoke and tar. And while vaping is less harmful, we don't yet know all of its impacts. We do know, however, that many vaping products are jam-packed with nicotine and are highly addictive

So how did Juul and other e-cig products get to the point where 20.9% of high school seniors and 10.9% of eighth-graders report they've vaped in the last year? Some point to the clever, social media-friendly ad campaigns and marketing efforts of Juul in the early 2010s. These ads made Juul seem like a hip, innovative wellness and lifestyle brand. As Robert Jackler points out, these ads reworked and updated versions of tried-and-true -- and since banned -- techniques used by old-school cigarette companies.

While Juul has since abandoned these campaigns, the Juul ads, along with the cigarette ads before them, provide a great case study of the persuasive tricks and deeper meaning of advertisements and commercials. The following video, discussion guide, and activity are designed to help students build these key media-literacy skills.

Juul ads, along with the cigarette ads before them, provide a great case study on the persuasive tricks and deeper meaning of advertisements and commercials.

Recommended for:

Grades: 6-12
Subjects: ELA, social studies, digital citizenship, advertising/marketing, business

Prep for teachers

In the classroom

Hook (seven minutes):

  • Before screening the video, ask students to take notes while they watch.
  • Provide them with an essential question to focus their viewing -- e.g., “What contributed to the rise of e-cigarettes and vaping?” 
  • Show the Vox video "How Juul made nicotine go viral."

Whole-class discussion activity (10 minutes):

Use these questions, as needed, to guide discussion. Help students tease out the various ways products get sold to us and the specific strategies that get used.

  • Juul has stopped using the ads featured in this video. So why do you think vaping and Juul remain so popular?
  • What other ways does interest in vaping, Juul, or other e-cigarette products spread now? 
  • (If students mention memes): Do you think of memes people create and share as advertisements? Do you think Juul's ad campaigns had any influence on these memes? What else influences the content of memes?
  • (If students mention YouTube videos and Twitch streams, etc.): Are some of these things ads themselves? How can you tell? Does it even matter whether something is paid for by an e-cigarette or vaping company or not? 
  • What do you think is the appeal of vaping products like Juul versus cigarettes? How do ads or other forms of marketing lean into that appeal or not?
  • Many of these advertising and marketing techniques can't be used by cigarette companies. Why do you think that is? Do you think the same government crackdown and regulation will happen to e-cigarettes?

Student handout (can be done in class or at home depending on time and resources): 

Note: There are two implementation options below specific to Juul and cigarette ads, but the handout can also be used to analyze any kind of advertisement on any topic.

Low-tech or more scaffolding option:

High-tech option or more challenging option

  • Share a link to the Smithsonian's Marilyn E. Jackler Memorial Collection of Tobacco Advertisements with students, along with the handout and this Juul ad
  • Demonstrate to students how to browse the Smithsonian's library of ads on the left. Show them how to look for the blue box to locate digitized materials and then how to open a PDF of an ad.
  • Instruct students to find an ad in the Smithsonian collection that has a theme and/or uses an advertising technique similar to the provided Juul ad.
  • Instruct students to analyze the two ads and complete the questions on the handout.

Possible follow-ups


Top photo credit: Georgia Geen for VCU Capital News Service and licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Editor's note: This resource is part of a monthly series that helps teachers facilitate classroom discussions about trending and timely issues in the news and media. For more, browse our library of news and media literacy articles.