Blackburn vaping company under fire for marketing style

Blackburn Rovers' Steve Waggott with Marcus Saxton of Totally Wicked

A Blackburn-based vaping company has come under fire for its branding and sponsorship activities which MPs have claimed are a direct attempt to market vaping products at kids.

Totally Wicked, which sponsors the shirts of its local team English Football League Championship side Blackburn Rovers, and the stadium of Rugby League giants St Helens, has denied the suggestions and insists it is focused on encouraging addicted adults to give up tobacco cigarette smoking.

Marcus Saxton

Chief executive Marcus Saxton, also the chairman of the  Independent British Vape Trade Association, gave evidence on 28 June at the House of Commons Select Committee on Health and Social Care where he clashed with MPs over vaping regulations.

Speaking at a later Commons debate on 12 July, Steve Brine MP Conservative chairman of the Health and Social Care Committee, and a former health minister, who had earlier challenged Saxton at the hearings, said: “I would ask Blackburn Rovers to look themselves in the mirror about that one, as much as the company that are doing the advertising. Because it takes two to tango.”

Saxton subsequently told that all branding decisions to name the company Totally Wicked and depict a cartoon red devil were taken before he joined the business.

He also revealed that Blackburn Rovers Football Club, owned by Indian chicken giant Venky’s, approached Totally Wicked about a sponsorship deal, which then started in September 2018.

“They came to us originally to ask for our support at a time of need.

“Totally Wicked commenced a commercial partnership in Sept 2018, which saw us becoming the Blackburn Rovers official training kit sponsor.”

There is no doubt that Totally Wicked is a successful local business, with 148 retail outlets, while the most recent published accounts show turnover of the group trading company to March 2022, of £41,779,661 and pre tax profits of £9,065,775.

Asked who made the decision to use the phrase “Totally Wicked” as the company name, and use a cartoon character for its branding, and which agencies were employed to develop the brand personality, he said: “Jason Cropper was the original founder of the Totally Wicked business, albeit is no longer involved.  Jason Cropper developed the name, which was synonymous with how he, a lifelong smoker, and many early trialists described our transformative product.  The logo was developed in-house when the business was established in 2008 for the purpose of bringing a distinctive personality/identity to the brand, not a cartoon representation.”

The Health and Social Care Committee had also heard from Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty who described “an appalling situation” whereby vaping, which he described an “an addictive product with…unknown consequences for developing minds”, is being marketed to children. 

Andrew Gwynne MP

MPs at the Committee, and in a subsequent debate triggered by a motion from Andrew Gwynne MP (Denton and Reddish, Greater Manchester), have called for the Advertising Standards Authority to ban vaping advertising, especially from sport.

Gwynne’s motion said: “This House is concerned that children are being inappropriately exposed to e-cigarette promotions and that under-age vaping has increased by 50% in just the last three years; condemns the Government for its failure to act to protect children by voting against the addition of measures to prohibit branding which is appealing to children on e-cigarette packaging during the passage of the Health and Care Act 2022 and for failing to bring forward the tobacco control plan that it promised by the end of 2021; and therefore calls on the Government to ban vapes from being branded and advertised to appeal to children and to work with local councils and the NHS to help ensure that e-cigarettes are being used as an aid to stop smoking, rather than as a new form of smoking.”

Labour’s Rachel Maskell MP (York) pointed to a YouGov survey that showed of the 3.6 million adults who are vaping, 2 million are ex-smokers who have now returned to using a nicotine-based product, 1.4 million are current smokers and 200,000 have never smoked and are vaping. 

The Advertising Standards Authority says that “adverts for e-cigarettes must be targeted responsibly”.

Maskell said: “The ASA has a job of work to do there. I wonder, although I suspect that it is perhaps unable to, whether it would want to look at issues such as sports advertising. Blackburn Rovers are being sponsored by a vaping retailer, Totally Wicked, for the sixth season in a row. We would find it unacceptable if our football club came out with cigarette branding on their shirts. I cannot understand why it is any more acceptable for a football club to come out with vaping advertising.”

Asked whether a ban would harm his business, Saxton said: “The UK government/regulators have long since recognised the positive role that vaping plays in their global leadership in a tobacco control policy, and since the establishment of the Tobacco & Related Products Regulation (2016), there has been a clear, evidenced-based framework in which our business and the wider sector has operated.

“Since our conception in 2008, we have continued to develop a large portfolio of products to suit the spectrum of vaper’s needs, and we would ensure that our current, or future product development is in line with any regulatory changes.”

He said he saw no threat to the business from current suggested changes aimed at cutting vaping amongst under 18s:  “The sale of e-cigarettes to those under 18 is illegal, and we strictly enforce these regulations across all of our owned routes to market.  Advertising e-cigarettes is already tightly regulated, and we do not see any material impact if there were any further changes.”

A Blackburn Rovers spokesman said: “At no point during our long-standing relationship has the idea that the Totally Wicked brand might appeal disproportionately to children been raised and we have seen no evidence to suggest that our sponsorship has encouraged an uptake of vaping among children.

“Both Blackburn Rovers and Totally Wicked advocate that vaping has a positive and proven role in supporting the reduction and ultimate eradication of smoking within our communities.”

The Totally Wicked logo does not appear on any playing shirts or replica shirts for under-18s, the club said.