JUUL’s marketing strategy over the years has essentially positioned the company as the Cool Girl of the tobacco industry; JUUL isn’t like the other girls that want to get people hooked on cigarettes that will eventually kill them, JUUL wants to hold its customers’ hands and lead them gently toward a better, and a claims-to-be healthier (yet unproven), lifestyle. Its branding and advertising has centered around the idea that cigarettes are bad and JUUL is good. “Make the Switch,” the company encouraged (until a month ago, when the company pivoted away from the slogan in a series of internal decisions). "We certainly don’t want youth using the product," the company said, as it pulled flavors from shelves.
A lawsuit filed this week by Siddharth Breja, a former JUUL executive, makes it seem like the company never actually believed any of its own moral signaling. The lawsuit claims that former JUUL CEO Kevin Burns brushed off concerns that his company was shipping at least a million contaminated pods earlier this year, dismissing his customers as “drunk” people who “vape like mo-fos.” As BuzzFeed News reports, Breja alleges he was wrongfully terminated in March 2019 for raising concerns about the shipment of bad pods.
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This is damning for a company that has held its nose above the fray of third-party and counterfeit pods, which JUUL has openly and consistently blamed for containing unregulated, potentially harmful contents. According to details from the lawsuit obtained by BuzzFeed News, in February 2019, Breja protested selling pods that were nearly a year old by the time they shipped, and asked the company to at least include an expiration or manufacture date on the packaging. Burns allegedly shot this down, saying, “Half our customers are drunk and vaping like mo-fos, who the fuck is going to notice the quality of our pods.”
The answer to that is… a lot of people. The problem with having an extremely devoted customer base is they tend to be a bit obsessed with the product. Stan culture misses nothing. A smattering of posts from the r/juul subreddit complain of declining pod quality; while these complaints aren’t necessarily related to the shipment mentioned in the lawsuit, they show how dedicated and attentive avid JUULers are. Posts from the subreddit routinely compare clarity of pod juice and complain of anything suspect, like leaking pods or pods that are already brown (signifying age, perhaps) when opened. It’s impossible to speak to the mental state of the people posting about pod quality online, but even if they are, in fact, “drunk and vaping like mo-fos,” they’re still very much noticing the quality of JUUL’s products.
Update: On Wednesday evening, a spokesman for Kevin Burns passed along the following statement to VICE: "I never said this, or anything remotely close to this, period. As CEO, I had the company make huge investments in product quality and the facts will show this claim is absolutely false and pure fiction.”
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