FTC opens attack on Joe Camel

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The Federal Trade Commission staff today opened its challenge of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.'s Old Joe Camel campaign arguing Reynolds "knew or should have known" the campaign would have a direct impact on kids.

"The evidence was that this wasn't a campaign directed to adults with a spillover to kids," said David Shonka, an FTC lawyer, at the opening of what's expected to be a six-week trial before an FTC administrative law judge.

Mr. Shonka acknowledged the FTC staff had no statistical studies to demonstrate that the Old Joe campaign, which Reynolds abandoned last year, specifically caused kids to smoke or increase smoking. Instead, he said, growth in the number of kids smoking Camels during the campaign, Reynolds marketing strategy memos and other government agencies' reports on the effects of tobacco advertising are sufficient to prove Reynolds was illegally targeting kids.

Joe Camel was "more successful at increasing underage smokers than adult smokers," said Mr. Shonka. Reynolds "spent years and vast sums of money to develop a consumer profile [to target] that bears a remarkable resemblance to 14- to 17-year-olds."

RJR, however, accused the FTC staff of a "jihad against Joe" and of undertaking a politically popular prosecution against a relatively minor player in the youth smoking problem without statistical evidence to back up its charges. "No study has linked Joe to youth smoking," said John B. Williams, a Washington lawyer representing Reynolds. He called youth consumption of Camel's a "fly speck" compared to youths' use of rivals brands. Mr. Williams said youth smoking increases cited by the FTC as demonstrating Joe's power coincided with increases in alcohol use in the U.S. and tobacco use in other countries.

Calling Joe "one of the most effective campaigns in the history of consumer marketing" in turning around brand preferences of adult smokers, Mr. Williams said the FTC has to show Joe was intended and was "the" factor that caused youth smoking increases before it can take action to restrict Joe's advertising.

"Joe has become a scapegoat, a politically incorrect symbol," he said. He charged the FTC "has lost track of the First Amendment."

Although Reynolds dropped the Joe Camel campaign last year, the company has continued to fight the FTC staff action because of the sanctions the FTC has demanded be imposed on Reynolds and because the agency wants Reynolds to acknowledge it targeted kids. Joe Camel in recent years was handled by Mezzina/Brown, New York.

Copyright November 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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