Ever since the campaign began three years ago, antismoking activists have singled it out like no other, seizing on it as a symbol of everything they despise about how cigarettes are sold in America. Yet experts on consumer marketing rave that the campaign, for which Reynolds spends upward of $75 million a year, has rejuvenated a once-moribund brand, enabling it to remain amid the ranks of the nation's best-selling cigarettes.
"There's no doubt it's a strong and effective campaign," John E. O'Toole, president and chief executive of the American Association of Advertising Agencies in New York, said yesterday. "What it's done is to break through the clutter, the sameness, of cigarette advertising."
Indeed, a rival tobacco company is testing the popularity of a penguin in sunglasses to promote one of its brands.
The latest attacks on Joe Camel came yesterday in a special issue of the Journal of the American Medical Assocation devoted to the dangers of smoking. It savaged the character's appeal to, and efficacy in reaching, children.
A coalition of health organizations, including the American Cancer Society, wasted no time in petitioning the Federal Trade Commission to ban the campaign, which the groups assailed as "one of the most egregious examples in recent history of tobacco advertising that targets children."
Joe Camel was actually born in Europe. The caricatured camel was created in 1974 by a British artist, Nicholas Price, for a French advertising campaign that subsequently ran in other countries in the 1970's. Indeed, Mr. O'Toole recalled a visit to France many years ago during which he glimpsed Joe Camel wearing a Foreign Legion cap. The inspiration behind Mr. Price's cartoon was the camel, named Old Joe, that has appeared on all Camel packages since the brand's initial appearance in 1913..
Joe Camel first appeared in this country in 1988, in materials created for the 75th anniversary of the Camel brand by Trone Advertising. Trone is a small agency in Greensboro, N.C., that Reynolds uses on various advertising and promotional projects.
The anniversary logo then appeared in Camel advertising, created by the brand's main agency, McCann-Erickson, New York, which carried the theme "75 years and still smokin'!" Based on positive consumer response to the character, and the success of the anniversary promotion, Joe Camel became the centerpiece of Camel's advertising, with the addition of a slogan, "Smooth character."
Among the most contentious aspects of Joe Camel's appearance has been that nose. Reynolds has always said this protuberance is nothing more than an exaggerated rendering of a camel's nose; critics say it was drawn in a phallic fashion to suggest that smoking is a virile pursuit.
Reynolds has relied on Joe Camel to give the brand, the first nationally advertised cigarette, a more contemporary image among the crucially important segment of younger male smokers.
"The over-21-year-old smoker is the most prized of all consumers," said Roy Burry, a senior vice president of Kidder, Peabody & Company in New York who follows the tobacco industry. "A young smoker will stick with smoking longer than an older smoker, who dies or quits."
The original, unfiltered Camel brand was once the most popular cigarette in America, thanks to memorable slogans like "I'd walk a mile for a Camel." It went into a steep decline during the 1950's as a result of a boom in filtered brands like Marlboro, made by Reynolds's archrival, Philip Morris.
Though filtered Camels were introduced, their ever-changing campaigns, utilizing a variety of male-oriented imagery, never caught fire until Joe Camel walked in.
That is a singular accomplishment for two reasons: First, as Emanuel Goldman, an industry analyst for Paine Webber Inc. in San Francisco, noted, "It's very difficult to take the image of a product and flip it so quickly."
Another sign of Joe Camel's success is that the campaign has progressed even as Reynolds has changed agencies on the Camel account. McCann worked on Joe Camel ads through 1989, when the brand was moved to Young & Rubicam in New York. Y.& R. worked on the account until October, when Reynolds moved the most significant portion of the account to Mezzina/Brown Inc. in New York, an agency founded by two former top Y. & R. Camel-account executives.
"The Camel illustration is a whimsical caricature," said William G. Brown Jr., president of Mezzina/ Brown, "designed to appeal to the adult smoker and to encourage adult smokers to switch brands." Mr. Brown's emphasis on adult customers echoed the manufacturer's repeated insistence that the campaign has not targeted children.
Mr. O'Toole of the advertising association agreed. "It's very effective in doing what cigarette advertising sets out to do, changing brand preferences," he said.
The Joe Camel ads feature the character, always in a heroic pose, amid palm trees, surrounded by adoring cartoon women or in a barroom. The current campaign focuses on a "Camel Cash" promotion. Consumers can collect certificates on packs of the 12 varieties of Camels redeemable for merchandise like Joe Camel T-shirts.
The entire campaign continues a long tradition of promoting smoking as part of a fashionable, sophisticated life style, according to Eugene Secunda, a marketing professor at Baruch College of the City University of New York and a former advertising executive. " 'Smoking is hip' is one of the fundamental appeals that cigarette manufacturers have been using going back to the 20's, when cigarette smoking was successfully sold to the American public as no longer an effete thing to do," he said.
Even so, Dr. Secunda is not entirely sold on Joe Camel's success in selling cigarettes. "When I first saw the campaign," he said, "I had a strong feeling of some middle-aged art director asking, 'How can I be hip and au courant?' "
And Mr. Maxwell of Wheat First doubted that the campaign could continue to protect Camel from the sales declines that all full-price brands are suffering.
Still, if imitation is indeed a form of flattery, Joe Camel has a fan at another cigarette company. In southern Virginia, the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation is testing advertising for its Kool brand that features a drawing of a penguin that sports sunglasses and a hip attitude. That test, by the Campbell-Mithun-Esty agency of New York, is based on a penguin called Willie that appeared in Kool ads from 1933 to 1960. Since the test began almost two months ago, said Joe Helewicz, a Brown & Williamson spokesman, there have been virtually no complaints about the character from consumers.
Mr. Helewicz denied any relationship between his pitch-beast and Reynolds's. "I don't think there's any resemblance at all," he said.
One way the two characters are alike is that antismoking groups have attacked Kool's test campaign, too. Mr. Helewicz said that the complaints would have no effect on his company's plans, a stance Reynolds has taken as well.
Advertising industry spokesmen agree with that decision. "Cigarette advertisers have withstood an awful lot of slings and arrows," Mr. O'Toole said.
And on Wall Street, the latest objections to Joe Camel are met with derision. "The anti-cigarette forces will do anything to accomplish their objectives," said Mr. Goldman of Paine Webber. "If they were not after Reynolds for this, they would be after Reynolds for something else."
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