Advertiser: R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
Agency: Mezzina/Brown, New York
Ad Review rating: 3 1/2 stars
Ding, dong, the camel is dead. Joe Camel is dead. The camel is dead. Ding, dong, that ugly camel is dead.
Yes, the spell that has ensnared countless kids in a cartoon character's smart-ass thrall has finally been broken--but not before a nightmarish advertising adventure on the yellowed-by-tobacco road.
With the demise of one of the most reviled campaigns in ad history, the whole sordid affair is taking on a "Wizard of Oz" cast--not least because, as Dorothy discovered, the treacherous odyssey was all for nothing.
Joe Camel, you may recall, was a means to contemporize and invigorate the Old Joe character who has graced the cigarette pack for decades. The cartoon Joe was irreverent and (supposedly) hip, and seemed to do exactly what was asked of him: He attracted new smokers, several of whom were over 18.
By contrast, the new work from Mezzina/Brown is genuinely hip. It invokes apparently accidental--but almost paranormally vivid--outlines of Old Joe in cigarette smoke, cocktail-glass condensate on a bar top, venetian blinds and elsewhere. These are stylish, witty, sophisticated and, above all, adult expressions of a powerful icon, uniquely suited to this brand. (For instance, how would you draw a "Salem"?) The slogan, "What you're looking for," which shows up in the print work but not the outdoor, is really irrelevant. What works is the imagery, the supernatural visitations of Old Joe.
If this were the Blessed Mother instead of a dromedary, the bar top would be a shrine.
While there's no certainty that no children will be intrigued by this sort of imagery, clearly kids won't be especially intrigued by it. Notwithstanding the pending restrictions on cigarette-ad imagery, there's nothing wrong with tobacco advertising that isn't particularly a child magnet. And this isn't.
It may, however, be an adult magnet; these spontaneously forming camels are irresistible. Far more irresistible than a snide cartoon who did, in actual fact, look like male genitalia.
But the damage is done. Maybe RJR should have clicked their heels three times back in 1988, because when they get back to Winston-Salem, things will be far worse than when they left. For the past nine years, they have shamelessly enticed kids, told outrageous lies, insulted our intelligence and infuriated regulators. They have transformed the smoking debate from a fairly reasoned (albeit lopsided) discourse into a stark portrait of good vs. evil. The result: a level of government censorship hitherto unheard of in our society.
That's a lot of baggage for one advertiser to bear, and Joe Camel has been the beast of burden. That burden has finally been lifted, but by no means is RJR over the hump. History will show that Joe Camel led an entire industry into the desert, never safely to return.
At the moment, big tobacco is looking to export markets for growth, but inevitably, the regulation, litigation and censorship will be exported, as well. In a decade or two it will be clear that, for the sake of an increase in domestic market share, Joe Camel triggered a chain of events that eventually will result in the decimation of the tobacco industry worldwide.
Thus the Oz-like irony of "What you're looking for." Joe needn't have been. As the new ads demonstrate, what RJR was looking for was there all along.
Copyright July 1997, Crain Communications Inc.