Advertisement

Joe Camel Leads the Pack in Lighting Up Controversy : Advertising: Critics blame the character for enticing youths to smoke. Cigarette maker denies targeting teens.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He’s got the slickest race car, the hippest Ray-Bans, the raddest saxophone. He’s a whiz on the harmonica, he shoots a mean game of pool and, of course, he always gets the girl. He’s so famous that 6-year-olds recognize him as quickly as Mickey Mouse. And, like Mickey, he’s only a cartoon.

He’s Joe Camel, and if ever there was a lightning rod in the debate over whether tobacco advertising lures young people to smoke, this four-legged dude with the attitude is it.

He’s been picked apart by epidemiologists and reported upon in prestigious medical journals. He has sent protesters into the streets; “Dump the Hump,” they chanted in Chicago. He’s been scrutinized--and cleared--by the Federal Trade Commission, and he’s the target of a lawsuit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

And recently, Joe Camel--along with the Marlboro man, the Virginia Slims gals and others--helped provide the impetus for President Clinton’s controversial move to sharply limit cigarette advertising in an effort to curb teen-age smoking. The tobacco industry is waging war on the plan, which includes a ban on billboard advertising within 1,000 feet of schools and would reduce tobacco ads to black-and-white text in magazines that have a youth readership of 15% or more.

Advertisement

Perhaps the biggest symbol in this controversy is smokin’ Joe, a party-hardy dromedary with an oversized schnoz, an ever-present smirk and a cigarette that is always lighted but never seems to burn. His foes think he’s sinister--an exercise in subliminal seduction, they allege, his face fashioned after a set of male genitals. His maker says he’s misunderstood, a scapegoat. (Make that scape-camel.) Whatever Joe is, one thing is certain: He’s good at selling cigarettes.

For the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., the maker of Camel cigarettes, Joe Camel has been a bonanza. The marketing campaign helped reverse the declining fortunes of an 82-year-old brand that the Tobacco Reporter once bluntly described as decrepit.

That has changed in the years since Joe worked his way into America’s cultural landscape, becoming a ubiquitous presence in magazines and on billboards--as well as on T-shirts, ball caps and other products that can be acquired with phony money, known as “Camel cash,” that bears the likeness of Joe dolled up, Ray-Bans and all, in a powdered George Washington wig.

Market Share Gains

Advertisement

Before the birth of Joe Camel in 1988, the federal government reports, an estimated 3% of teen-age smokers and 4% of adult smokers picked Camel cigarettes as their brand of choice. Five years later, the percentage of adult smokers favoring Camels remained the same, but among smokers ages 12 to 18, Camel’s market share had more than tripled to 13%, prompting outrage among public health professionals and tobacco critics who say Joe Camel is proof that the industry targets young people with its ads.

“What is notable about Joe Camel is that it is incredibly obvious that they are targeting children,” said Mark Pertschuk, spokesman for Americans for Nonsmokers Rights, a Berkeley-based anti-tobacco group. “It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to tell you that cartoon characters on skateboards are not targeting 35-year-old professional women.”

Countered Maura Ellis, an R.J. Reynolds spokeswoman: “There is nothing nefarious behind Joe Camel. Joe has been scrutinized up one side and down the other by the U.S. government and has been exonerated.”

The Lure of Smoking

Underlying this pitched debate is a public health paradox: In the past three decades, as more and more evidence has accumulated linking smoking to disease, the number of adult Americans who smoke has steadily declined. But overall, the smoking population has remained the same. This is because teen-agers are stepping in to fill the gap.

“The biggest success story of the public health movement is the convincing of adults not to be enticed to start smoking,” said John Pierce, a UC San Diego epidemiologist who studies the link between advertising and tobacco use. “Our biggest failure is our inability to convince our adolescents against the lures of the industry.”

More than 3.1 million adolescents currently smoke, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A long-running study conducted by the University of Michigan found that 19% of high school seniors used cigarettes daily in 1993.

That actually reflects a decline from two decades ago. In 1976, the year the Michigan study began, the figure was 28.8%. But what has public health officials so alarmed is that this steady downward trend has leveled off. It hit bottom in 1984, when 18.7% of high school seniors smoked, and has remained essentially unchanged since then.

Advertisement

There are various explanations. Peer pressure is certainly a factor, as is parental influence. Studies show that youths whose friends or parents smoke are more likely to be smokers themselves. Or the trend may be a reflection of what Michael Eriksen, director of the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health, calls “the perverse relationship between teens and adults.”

Smoking has always been an act of rebellion. As more adults frown on the use of tobacco, Eriksen says, it is possible that cigarettes have become even more “attractively illicit” to teen-agers.

Then there is the advertising link, which is where Joe Camel comes in. In the past four years, researchers have compiled a mountain of evidence showing that Joe is a hit with kids.

Of six different cigarette advertising campaigns, one study found, Camel was the most familiar brand to 12- to 17-year-olds. Another found that a four-year decline in smoking among California teen-agers was reversed and replaced by an abrupt increase in 1988, the year Joe Camel was introduced in the United States. A third study found that 90% of children ages 8 to 13 named Camel when asked to name a familiar brand; only 73% named Marlboro, even though Marlboro’s market share is seven times that of Camel’s.

Three weeks ago, the CDC published data on “initiation rates” among adolescent smokers--the percentage of young people who begin smoking each year. Throughout the 1980s, the rate was essentially unchanged, ranging from 4.6% to 5.5%. But there was one year that the rate jumped above 6%. That was 1988. The researcher who conducted that study, epidemiologist Michael Cummings at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., says he has a phrase for what happened: “I call it the Camel hump.”

Joe’s U.S. Appearance

Like so many things fashionable, Joe Camel came to the United States from France.

He made his first appearance in 1974, the creation of a British illustrator named Nick Price whose whereabouts have been lost to time. A poster used by R.J. Reynolds’ French subsidiary featured “a Joe-like caricature” bursting through the front of the traditional yellow-and-white Camel pack, which features a camel marching past the great pyramids of Egypt.

Advertisement

In 1987, with the 75th birthday of Camel cigarettes a year away, R.J. Reynolds began looking for a way to freshen up the brand’s stale image.

If Camel was to survive, it needed to compete with Marlboro, which had long been--and continues to be--the industry leader. Someone trotted out the French Joe, and the R.J. Reynolds people liked what they saw.

By 1988, a jazzier version of Joe was in circulation across America. For a camel, Joe began turning up in the unlikeliest of places--on the golf course, swinging an iron dressed in dapper chinos; at a nightclub, strumming his electric guitar in a black T-shirt and blazer; in the pool hall, his red baseball cap turned backward on his furry scalp as he lined up his cue. “Smooth character,” the ads proclaimed.

Three years later, Joe came out with his own line of merchandise--tank tops, gym bags, ball caps, lighters, sunglasses, jackets in denim and suede. All are featured in the Camel Cash catalogue, free at convenience stores. In every pack of Camels comes a C-note--a phony dollar bill. Joe’s tank top costs 55 C-notes. Smokin’ Joe’s racing cap costs 175. Joe’s denim biker jacket costs 490.

Critics say the ads play to the desire of young people to be hip, and they charge that the catalogue is a ploy to get youths to collect C-notes like baseball cards--and buy more cigarettes to get them. Even Advertising Age editorialized against Joe Camel, writing in January, 1992, that the campaign “encourages youngsters to smoke” and should be dropped.

R.J. Reynolds disputes these charges, as well as the government’s statistics that show a jump in sales to teen-agers.

The company itself doesn’t study the underage market. “It’s not a market we’re interested in pursuing,” Ellis said. What she does say is that Joe Camel did his job by helping young adult smokers to switch from Marlboro and keeping Camel’s market share steady at its current 4.3%.

“The campaign has been successful in stopping the erosion of the brand,” she said. “And at a time when the market itself is declining in size, that’s good news.”

Fame Among Children

One person who did not find good news in Joe Camel is Dr. Paul Fischer.

Fischer is a doctor in Augusta, Ga., who used to teach at the Medical College of Georgia. One day he took his 2-year-old son to a restaurant, where the boy picked up a straw and pretended to smoke it. “Daddy,” the child told his father, “when I grow up I want to be a man. I want to drive fast cars and I want to smoke cigarettes.”

Fischer was horrified. How, he wondered, could a 2-year-old living in a house of nonsmokers already be attuned to the glamour of cigarettes? And that is what drove this doctor, in 1991, to become the first medical researcher to report that Joe Camel was making quite a name for himself among America’s youngest citizens.

Fischer recruited 229 children, ages 3 to 6, for a simple experiment. He created a game board that featured 22 pictures of products and a set of 22 cards with commercial images. Included was Joe Camel, although he was not pictured smoking.

When the tests were finished, Joe was in a dead heat with Mickey Mouse as the most recognizable of the 22 images--more recognizable than the Marlboro man or the Nike symbol. Among 3-year-olds, 30% were able to match Joe Camel with a cigarette. So were 91% of the 6-year-olds--the same percentage who matched Mickey Mouse with the Disney Channel.

At the same time, a University of Massachusetts researcher, Joseph DiFranza, was studying brand preference among underage smokers. Surveying more than 1,000 high school students and 345 adults, DiFranza found that adolescents were 10 times as likely as adults to smoke Camels. Before the Joe Camel campaign, his study showed, 1% of the students smoked Camels. At the time of his research, 33% picked Camel as their brand.

These studies created a huge uproar when they were published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. “Before we did this, nobody thought advertising was important,” Fischer said. “But by showing that children at very young ages are affected by this, there was a 180-degree change in people’s attitudes about cigarette advertising.”

But the work also drove Fischer out of academia.

After his study was published, San Francisco lawyer Janet Mangini sued R.J. Reynolds in an attempt to ban Joe Camel. In turn, R.J. Reynolds sued Fischer, seeking his research files so that they could duplicate his work. (They eventually did so, finding that while 6-year-olds did recognize Joe Camel, 96% also said they disapproved of smoking.)

The Medical College of Georgia declined to defend Fischer, and after three rounds in court, the doctor was forced to turn over his notes--minus the names of the children who were the study subjects. Today, soured on academia, he is in private practice. Mangini’s lawsuit, meanwhile, is tied up in the discovery process in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that upheld her right to proceed with the case.

Making Enemies

Armed with studies such as Fischer’s, a broad array of health advocates--including the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Assn., the American Heart Assn. and former Surgeons General Antonia C. Novella and C. Everett Koop--asked the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates unfair business practices, to ban Joe Camel on the grounds that he appeals to an illegal market.

But last year the FTC declined, saying there was not enough direct evidence to prove that the ad campaign actually caused young people to smoke. For Reynolds, it was an important victory. But Joe Camel foes have not given up. Led by Koop, they have been gathering more evidence and were planning to ask the FTC to reconsider when Clinton preempted them.

Yet amid all the fuss over Joe Camel, tobacco foes say that the Marlboro man is actually much more effective at reaching young people, probably because Philip Morris Inc., the maker of Marlboro, spends at least twice what R.J. Reynolds spends on advertising and promotions.

“People always talk about Joe Camel, and Joe Camel is the most blatant, outrageous act we have seen in recent years,” said Matthew Myers, lawyer for the Coalition on Smoking OR Health. “But if someone were to get rid of Joe Camel and not get rid of the Marlboro man, you wouldn’t be touching the problem.”

All of which leaves Ellis, the Reynolds spokeswoman, baffled.

“Our share of media coverage in the last five years is way out of proportion to the size of the brand,” she said. “Our chairman, Jim Johnston, has said from the very beginning that if we can find evidence that Joe is causing kids to smoke, we will withdraw him from the marketplace.”

Some suggest that may already be occurring--perhaps because of pressure from tobacco foes, perhaps because, after seven years of selling cigarettes, Joe is getting a little bit tired. Around Los Angeles, Joe no longer looms over every street corner as he once did. Recently, the Wall Street Journal wrote an article suggesting Joe had been quietly demoted.

Not so, Ellis insists. She says a 50-foot mural of Joe just went up in Manhattan’s Times Square, and, despite the controversy, there are no plans to ship him off to that great barnyard in the sky. Joe’s low profile, she asserts, is nothing more than a strategy to keep the competition guessing.

“Sometimes you see Joe by himself, sometimes you see Joe with others, sometimes you don’t see Joe at all. I’m not telling anybody what we are doing with Joe Camel. But we are not leaving Joe.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Teen Smoking Trends

Researchers believe teen-agers, more so than adults, are swayed by tobacco advertising, in particular the Joe Camel campaign. The following chart compares brand preferences in 1989--when Camel spent $27 million on advertising and Marlboro, the industry leader, spent $102 million--to preferences in 1993, when Camel spent $43 million and Marlboro spent $75 million.

*--*

Brand preference, Overall market ages 12 to 18 share 1989 1993 1989 1993 Marlboro 68.7% 60% 26.3% 23.5% Camel 8.1% 13.3% 3.9% 3.9% Newport 8.2% 12.7% 4.7% 4.9% Winston 3.2% 1.2% 9.1% 6.7% Kool 1.0% 1.2% 5.9% 3.0% Salem 1.5% 1.0% 6.2% 3.9% Benson & Hedges 1.4% .3% 3.9% 2.5%

*--*

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Advertisement