Stopped at a traffic light on my way to a business meeting, I glanced up and saw the camel rising above the brick building tops in vibrant, unnatural hues, stretching, it seemed, far into the sky.
I thought he saw me, too; he winked at me with a grin. And there was an understanding between us-camel and man, man and camel.
But his wink and grin were not meant for me alone.
I am a local advertising professional, and the camel is the symbol for Camel cigarettes. He speaks to the city from high atop Howard Street and North Avenue on his billboard perch.
As an "adman," I am impressed by the camel. The cartoonish, humanistic depiction of the desert beast in a jazz jam session with his camel buddies is intriguing. It doesn't ask for your atten-tion, it grabs it. And once you are hooked, as it were, on the visual, the message is clear: Camels are cool; they're fun; they make you part of the desirable crowd. All of this, conveyed in just a glance.
More than that, the cartoons speak most persuasively to the "target market" the company wishes to reach. All in all, it is an expert use of the medium and an excellent piece of advertising.
As a man, as a father, I am appalled by the camel. To me, he is perverse, a distortion. Strip away his sleek, tan exterior and what is left? Not a camel, but a purplish, black-plumed raven forlornly whispering to the children of the streets when their parents and teachers are not looking. He beckons the poor, preying upon their weaknesses and panhandling their few coins.
The spectacle leaves me between a rock and a camel's hump-and not only for selfish reasons. Of course, being a glad participant in the free-enterprise system, I am all for the aggressive manufacturing and marketing of any legal product. Beyond that, I believe that free speech, even for ignoble, detestable causes, should be protected without reservation.
But is it free speech to lure children with images they've been taught to trust, cartoon images, to a product the surgeon general has called an addiction that can lead to death? In fact, The New York Times Magazine recently reported that "the product kills more than 420,000 Americans a year-surpassing the combined deaths from homicide, suicide, AIDS, automobile accidents, alcohol and drug abuse."
I came to the conclusion that, yes, it is free speech. People are, and should be, allowed to convey whatever message they choose. That is the American way.
But freedom of expression also includes the freedom not to express one's self. No one forces an advertising agency to devise strategies and create images for a tobacco company targeting an inappropriate market. No one forces the media outlets to provide them a forum. And finally, no one should overlook them when it comes time to pass out blame.
But it is not enough, either, to merely ignore the camel. Those of us in the marketing business know exactly what he's up to; we should be the first to denounce him. Even in public and professional life, there is a place for personal morality and common decency.
These meager thoughts passed through my head as I sat at that light just over the Howard Street Bridge. When the signal turned green, I waited for a group of school kids to cross the street, then I gently pulled away. A couple of blocks later, I was stopped again at a light. This time, under a billboard for malt liquor.
Mr. DesRoches is president of Cornerstone, an advertising, design and public relations company in Baltimore.