Cigarette ads revive spirit of Joe Camel

By Published on .

Advertiser: R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
Agency: Mezzina/Brown, New York
Ad Review rating: One Star

Mighty nasty.

The new slogan for Camel cigarettes and Camel Lights from Mezzina/Brown, New York, is supposed to be "Mighty tasty." And it would seem to have a rather pleasing combination of directness and playfulness--until you realize what they are up to, which, of course, is the usual.

The usual trolling for adolescents, that is.

Having taken a stab at more adult imagery, the brand that improved its market share and wrecked its industry with the infamous Joe Camel cartoon is backsliding into juvenalia with a smart-alecky campaign that trades on a Joe Camel-like dose of attitude.

One of the spreads shows a handsome young man running for his life from a shabby farmhouse, where the incensed, geezerish farmer is chasing him with a double-barrel shotgun, and the young, blond farmer's daughter is in bed, sucking on a post-coital Camel. The farmer is old and dresses like Elmer Fudd. The fleeing traveling salesman is young and buff, so guess who we're supposed to be rooting for?

On one level, for the shallow and unworldly, this ad trades on the threadbare fantasy. But for extra credit it takes a self-mocking tone in discovery of its own inner cliche. A prominent "Viewer Discretion Advised" warning in the corner calls attention to: "SS. Satisfied Smoking. FV. Farm Violence. AN. Animal Nudity."

Another ad has the same approach. It depicts the butler and the babe-alicious maid in an aristocratic home conspiratorially defiling the meal with a cigarette ash before serving their mean employers, who are in the opulent dining room callously ringing the service bell.

The scenario plays off the insipid noble poor vs. evil rich class-hatred mentality that made "Titantic" such a hit with teen-age girls. But, once again, the ad comments on itself via the warning panel (IR. Idle Rich. ABR. Abusive Bell Ringing. PA. Premeditated Ashing.).

This sort of postmodern self-reference isn't as clever as it thinks it is, nor even all that amusing. What it is, however, is precisely the tack taken by many marketers to appeal to the supposedly media-wise younger generation.

How young?

Very young. For instance, the principal practitioner of this strategy is Sprite.

Meantime, the whole idea of lampooning viewer-discretion advisories seems calculated to ridicule and undercut the whole class of authoritarian warnings--such as, um, just to name one: SMOKING CAUSES LUNG CANCER, HEART DISEASE, EMPHYSEMA AND MAY COMPLICATE PREGNANCY.

Hmmm, let's see. Who most responds to attacks on authority? Is it adults? No, not adults. Why--you know what?--it's teen-agers! For gosh sakes, it's probably just a coincidence.

It's probably just a coincidence that, after being shamed into retiring Joe Camel, and replacing him with a sophisticated (and quite magnificent) campaign aimed clearly at adults, and watching sales flatten, R.J. Reynolds is back with ads using the psychology, sensibilities and iconography of the MTV crowd.

This stuff isn't as nakedly despicable as Joe Camel, who seduced not only teen-agers but small children. And it's tempting to give RJR the benefit of the doubt when it argues this campaign is aimed at over-21-year-olds.

But, once again, advertising is a shotgun, not a rifle, and the issue is who unavoidably--or intentionally--will be caught in the spray. Considering the company's history, and these ads' sly assault on protectors of the commonweal, giving RJR the benefit of any doubt would be, shall we say, mighty hasty.

Copyright July 1998, Crain Communications Inc. ;

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