E-cigs’ positive YouTube image “could influence young people”

love - Colton Witt 300x180The portrayal of e-cigarettes on YouTube is overwhelmingly positive, with only 2% of videos on the sharing site depicting the products in a negative light, according to a new report published by BMC Public Health.

A group of academics conducted a survey of the videos found on the Google-owned site on 23rd February 2013 using the following search terms:

  • electronic cigarettes
  • e-cigarettes
  • ecigarettes
  • ecigs
  • smoking electronic cigarettes
  • smoking e-cigarettes
  • smoking ecigarettes
  • smoking ecigs

The researchers – including authors from The State Key Laboratory of Management and Control for Complex Systems in Beijing; the department of management information systems at the University of Arizona; and the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona – chose these terms after a preliminary survey suggested they would return the most results.

“These eight search terms were chosen because they are the most frequently used terms for e-cigarettes and they can cover both ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ e-cigarette videos,” the authors said. “Two searches were conducted for each term: (a) ‘by relevance’ and (b) ‘by view count’. These two kinds of search strategy were chosen to mimic the typical user behavior by using the default search strategy (searching ‘by relevance’) as well as capture the most popular videos (searching ‘by view count’).”

The top 20 videos for each term were selected, and after irrelevant or duplicate results were removed, the team was left with 196 total videos. Of these, 185 (94%) were considered positive in their treatment of e-cigs, eight (4%) were neutral and only three (2%) were negative.

More than 70% of positive videos either suggested that e-cigarettes were healthier than conventional tobacco, mentioned a brand name, or used an e-cigarette to “promote it purposefully”.

All three of the negative videos were news clips.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to systematically document the quantity, portrayal and reach of e-cigarette videos on YouTube,” the researchers said. “The top three most prevalent genres of videos were advertisement videos produced by e-cigarette companies, user sharing videos produced by consumers, and product review videos produced by vendors.  Most of them claimed that the e-cigarette was healthier than real cigarettes and contained scenes showing that e-cigarette use was enjoyable or socially acceptable.”

The researchers were worried by the degree to which “pro” videos outnumbered “antis” and the lack of scientific robustness in their content, such as the claim that e-cigarettes are healthier than conventional tobacco.

The study also pointed out that the lack of age controls on YouTube means that e-cigarette videos are available to under-age viewers. YouTube’s broad reach – it is generally considered to be the third most popular site on the Internet – gives it considerable influence, and they collected demographic information showing that the majority of viewers of two videos fell into the 13-17 age group.

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    Videos showed e-cigarettes as enjoyable, with users vaping in areas where tobacco is not permitted – potentially undermining smoke-free legislation – and having characteristics that could be attractive to an adolescent or young adult market such as multiple flavours, colours, bright packaging and endorsements by famous actors as well as cartoon characters.

    “Though currently there are no studies that examine how e-cigarette messages on YouTube may affect people’s perception, belief and behavior toward e-cigarettes, previous studies have showed that positive smoking information in movies and television can stimulate positive attitudes and beliefs as well as smoking behavior among adolescents and young adults,” the authors said.

    What This Means:  The study raises some interesting questions that should be investigated further. But there are limitations to what should be extrapolated from it – as the researchers readily admit. Apart from anything else, the rapidly changing nature of YouTube means that a survey of videos from 18 months ago may no longer be useful. The accuracy of its demographic data is also not guaranteed.

    – Freddie Dawson ECigIntelligence staff


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    Photo: Colton Witt


    Freddie Dawson

    Senior news editor
    Freddie studied at King’s College, London and City University and worked for publications including The Times, The Malay Mail, PathfinderBuzz and Solar Summary before joining the ECigIntelligence team. He has extensive experience in covering fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), manufacturing and technological innovation.

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