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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Joe Camel

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

Most advertisers are moral people, and their advertising is simply a way to publicize their product or service. But when a company advertises poison to young children, we need to draw the line. We need to stop -- or at least expose -- this scurrilous, immoral, and downright evil practice.

In 1988, Camel cigarettes were in trouble. They were perceived as an "old man's" cigarette, and sales were slipping. The R. J. Reynolds people knew that most people who start smoking start early, certainly before they're mature, and usually even before high school. Every year, a million kids under the age of 18 start smoking. According to a study by the University of Michigan, the peak periods for kids to start smoking is in the sixth and seventh grade.

So what these ethically bankrupt scumbuckets did was to create a cartoon character (Joe Camel) to sell their cancerettes to young people. They gave him a face that's a clear example of the subliminal power of building a character around human genitalia. They dressed him up in cool clothes and put sunglasses on him. And they pumped millions and millions of dollars into the ad campaign (last year they spent 40 million bucks on Joe, up 63% from the year before).

Sad to say, their strategy has worked. Sales of Camels are up (get this!) 8000% among teenagers! That's not a typographical error -- it's eight thousand percent.

One out four kids aged 12 - 17 say that they smoke Camels.

In a recent brand recognition study, 67% of adults knew who Joe Camel was and what he was selling. Among 6-year-olds, that recognition factor increased to 91%, bringing Joe Camel equal to Mickey Mouse in being recognizable to children.

Even if Joe wasn't selling poison, the ads themselves are reprehensible. One shows Joe on a beach, with a sexy blonde, and contained Joe's advice to teenagers on how to be "cool." ("Run into the water and drag her back to shore as if you've saved her from drowning. The more she kicks and screams, the better."). Joe calls this "cool." I hope the rest of us would call this "assault." The ad was run in the National Lampoon and Rolling Stone magazine -- publications aimed at teenagers. But Joe Camel is selling poison. That's bad enough. But he's selling it to kids. Actually, the R.J. Reynolds people are the ones marketing addiction, pain and death to children. Their cartoon character is just their pimp to lure kids to destruction.

It's not fair. It's a scummy thing to do -- to use a cartoon character to hook young kids. I mean, I got hooked by the Marlboro Man twenty-six years ago, but I was 18 at the time. Practically an adult. And if the cigarette manufacturers want to try to sell their legal but destructive poison to adults, well, that's nearly a fair fight. Their four billion dollar advertising budget against our common sense. Marketing nicotine addiction to adults is terrible, but selling it to children is beneath contempt.

One tragedy is that there's no good way to fight these scuzzbags. Last May, the Federal Trade Commission secretly voted not to ban the use of Joe Camel to sell poison. And although the United States Supreme Court ruled just last month that people could sue R.J. Reynolds for the use of a cartoon character, any court battle will take time and money. Boycotts won't work, because (oddly enough) addicts need a continuing supply of the product. And besides, R. J. Reynolds is a huge conglomerate, owning Nabisco Foods and much, much more.

So here's my plan for the R.J. Reynolds people: Just stop it. Knock it off. Play fair. Here's a deal: We'll let you sell your poison to adults if you'll leave the kids alone. Wait until they develop enough intelligence and media savvy to know what it is you're really selling -- and what it will do to them. Give them a break. Give them a chance.

And don't deny what you're doing by saying that you're really selling only to young adults rather than to little kids. Even we smokers aren't stupid enough to believe that!

Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.