Within days of the FTC's 3-2 vote to stop investigating R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.'s Joe Camel campaign, a congressional committee with jurisdiction over the FTC was moving toward its own inquiry.
Rep. Al Swift (D., Wash.), chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Transportation & Hazardous Materials, was weighing whether to hold hearings on the way the FTC handled the case. Early indications were he would schedule hearings sometime this summer.
For RJR, the FTC's non-action represented vindication. In its strongest defense to date of advertising from Mezzina/Brown, New York, RJR last week said the campaign works, and similarly effective ads don't grow on trees.
"Clearly, the Camel campaign has communicated a message that has changed adult smokers' perception of the product," said Peggy Carter, public relations manager. "The campaign's thematic, combined with the promotional opportunities it offers, worked well for switching adult smokers of competitive brands. As long as the dynamics are working, we wouldn't pull this campaign to address advocacy criticisms."
Ms. Carter said the FTC decision shows evidence linking Joe to youth smoking doesn't exist.
"Our motto is we work for smokers, not for anti-smokers," she said. "... If we were to pull the campaign tomorrow, it would not change any youth-smoking behavior."
The FTC deliberated at length before deciding in favor of RJR (the complaint was filed in 1991), and in a rare bow to public interest, issued explanations for the commissioners' votes.
For the majority, it came down to a single question: Was there conclusive evidence to demonstrate a cause/effect relationship between the campaign and increased smoking by children?
For the three commissioners who voted "no," it wasn't even a close call.
"Although it may seem intuitive to some that the Joe Camel ad campaign would lead more children to smoke or lead children to smoke more, the evidence to support that intuition is not there," the three said.
Commissioner Dennis Yao, a Democrat, disagreed. He conceded evidence that children were being targeted was "circumstantial," but noted, "given the tremendous potential for the loss of human life, the issues presented in this case are central to the agency's consumer protection mission. I am most disappointed."
Commissioner Mary Azcuenaga, an independent, was the swing vote. In the end, she was convinced "there was not enough evidence to establish a reason to believe there had been harm done."
Chairman Janet Steiger, the sole Republican to favor a complaint, declined to comment on her vote.
The American Medical Association, which in 1991 published studies claiming Joe Camel targeted children, blasted the FTC.
"Since the introduction of Old Joe, Camel's share of the illegal children's cigarette market has risen from less than 1% to 32%," the association said. The AMA then threw its support behind congressional proposals to shift all authority over tobacco and its marketing to the Food & Drug Administration.