Truth Initiative sells 'depression sticks' in anti-vape campaign

The campaign, by Mojo Supermarket, uses humor and honesty to combat the vaping epidemic.

Truth Initiative sells 'depression sticks' in anti-vape campaign

“Why be happy when you can be sad?” begins a brightly-colored ad for fake vape product company Depression Sticks.

Created with agency Mojo Supermarket, Depression Sticks take center stage in the latest campaign from nonprofit tobacco-control organization Truth Initiative, called It’s Messing with Your Head. The satire campaign aims to expose vaping nicotine as a contributing factor in the growing youth mental health crisis. 

The spot, which mimics a '90’s-style infomercial, shows off Depression Sticks, which look like nicotine vapes packaged in brightly colored boxes, touting that the brand has the “best” flavors in the market. On the back of the package, in bold, a statement notes “nicotine can amplify feelings of anxiety and depression.” 

The spot turns into a hidden-camera prank style ad that follows Craig, a Depression Stick marketing manager, as he tries to “sell depression” at gas stations to unsuspecting social media influencers, lobbyists and advertising executives. The hidden cameras capture each person’s reactions when they learn that nicotine can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression. In the end, they all refuse to work with the fake brand. 

@Depression Stick

Introducing the first vape to keep it real: Depression Stick!

♬ Promoted Music

With the campaign, Truth Initiative decided to use satire and shock to create emotional resonance because appealing solely to logic in a public health campaign doesn’t always work, said CMO Eric Asche.

“There's an emotional resonance that also has a massive impact on how we make decisions,” he said. “We’re talking about young people who are emotionally trying to cope with addiction and feelings of depression and loneliness.” 

The campaign comes on the heels of the Food and Drug Administration's decision to postpone reviewing e-cigarette company applications, allowing brands such as Juul to continue to sell widely and delaying regulations. According to recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, e-cigarette use among youth has risen to epidemic levels over the last several years. According to a survey of youth by the Truth Initiative, 81% of respondents who had ever vaped reported they started vaping to decrease anxiety, depression or stress. Yet, 93% of vapers report that doing so negatively affects their lives by making them feel more stressed, depressed or anxious.

The ads will air nationally across digital, streaming and social media, as well as late-night television and podcasts. The ad aired broadly during the National Football League game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night, and the campaign includes a TikTok takeover and a Hulu Splash takeover on October 3. 

The campaign also includes more than 40 out-of-home placements in New York City, including a Times Square billboard, a storefront takeover at 140 Essex St. and a painted Wall on 305 Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The billboards include phrases such as “tastes like mint, feels like anxiety” and directs people to for more information. The website looks and feels like a real online shop. 

The illusion, which intentionally aims to “mess with the viewer’s head,” concludes with information about This Is Quitting, a text-message-based quit vaping program, on the website, said Mo Said, creative director at Mojo Supermarket.

“We had to make it look really attractive, because that's what the other companies do,” he said. “Other companies sell a depression stick but make it look and taste like candy. When people see the website and they're watching these TV commercials they will realize that.” 

A recently published study in The Journal of the American Medical Association shows that youth depression and anxiety doubled during the pandemic. Truth Initiative, which has created anti-smoking campaigns for over a decade, has released several anti-e-cigarette campaigns throughout the pandemic, including Quit Together and Read Between the Lines.

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