May 24, 1997 in Nation/World

Cartoon Predator

Shankar Vedantam Knight-Ridder
 

He grins over the landscape mischievously, a saxophone slung around his neck and women in tow, and beneath those sunglasses his eyes are wicked with laughter.

On Madison Avenue, he is regarded with awe: Joe Camel, advertising legend. But public health experts hurl abuse at him, charging that he insidiously lures children to smoke. Medical researchers say his image has spread so widely since he was introduced to Americans nine years ago that 6-year-olds recognize Joe Camel as easily as they do Mickey Mouse.

The Federal Trade Commission, on the urging of dozens of congressmen, is about to decide whether to sue R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., which makes Camel cigarettes, alleging that its advertising campaign illegally targets children.

“Joe Camel is the poster child - in this case the poster animal - to make cigarette smoking exciting to young people,” said Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., who is spearheading the congressional effort to get the FTC to sanction R.J. Reynolds. “A cartoon character hopping on a motorcycle or playing pool is not intended to get a 52-year-old to start smoking. It’s targeted at 14- to 15-year-olds.”

R.J. Reynolds and Mezzina/Brown Inc., the advertising agency that has run the Joe Camel campaign since 1991, deny they have ever attempted to sell cigarettes to children, and note that in 1994, the FTC voted 3-2 against pursuing a similar lawsuit. They say they have documented that the ad campaign is popular among adults between the ages of 21 to 26, a group many marketers seek.

“The camel has been on the pack for 100 years now,” said William Brown, president of the advertising agency. “We simply took the icon on the package and anthropomorphized him. That made him the surprising, humorous character he is.”

When the Camel brand was launched in the United States in 1913, its name was meant to conjure up images of Turkish tobacco. The cartoon camel was created in France decades ago, in part because the French government at the time banned the use of live models in tobacco advertising.

Peggy Carter, an R.J. Reynolds spokeswoman, said that the Joe Camel image was intended to revive a brand that had become moribund and appealed mostly to older smokers.

“The original copy line that went with the ad was ‘Smooth character,”’ she said, a reference both to Joe and the cigarette’s quality. “We hoped Joe would be perceived as a humorous image in lifestyle situations smokers enjoyed. Smokers got that message, anti-smokers didn’t.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the federal health agency, says the Joe Camel campaign has been particularly successful among adolescents.

One-third of high school students smoked cigarettes in the last month, the CDC says. The scientists say 13.3 percent of them smoke Camels, according to 1993 figures, up from 8.1 percent in 1989, when the ad campaign had just started. The brand’s share of the adult market is 3.9 percent.

The reason for the brand’s popularity with teenagers, experts say, is that it’s heavily advertised. The CDC says Reynolds spent $43 million in 1993 on magazine, print and outdoor advertising for Camel, second only to Marlboro.

The new attempt to get the FTC to sanction the Joe Camel campaign comes as the industry reels under a series of legal and regulatory onslaughts. It is backed by fresh documentation of the effects of tobacco advertising on children from the Food and Drug Administration, which is battling in court to curtail tobacco advertising and marketing.

One reason Joe Camel is controversial involves what advertising critics say is its subliminal effect: the nose and the jowls of the cartoon camel, they say, resemble male genitals. Brown broke into laughter at the suggestion.

“Have you ever seen a camel?” he asked, after he caught his breath. “Does Joe Camel look like a camel? That’s what they look like. I can’t help it. I didn’t do it, God did.”

Whether or not the reference was intended, Camel’s critics say the company benefits from it.

Public health experts say the company is lying when it says it is not aiming at children. Children are naturally riveted by cartoons, they say.

“Even if they are not lying, it’s disingenuous,” said Bob Garfield, an advertising critic and editor-at-large of Advertising Age magazine. “Advertising is not a rifle, it is a shotgun. Irrespective of who they are targeting, other people in the vicinity are going to be targeted by the spray.”


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