A decade after a British artist's caricature of a jovial dromedary changed marketing history, reversed a brand's slide and became a lightning rod for critics of advertising and tobacco, Joe Camel is about to go on trial.
The Federal Trade Commission as early as this week is expected to issue an unfair-advertising complaint charging R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. with using its infamous cartoon spokescamel to target children.
The action will be accompanied by a recommendation for corrective advertising.
The complaint would seek to effectively ban Old Joe. RJR's use of the character would be limited to advertising in bars and in publications reaching only adults.
The cartoon camel would be banned from appearing in outdoor advertising, on point-of-purchase displays and on merchandise seen by children--restrictions that would so limit Joe's marketing potential as to make his further use cumbersome and impractical.
RJR could also pay a severe monetary penalty. The FTC last week was said to be considering going beyond the normal "deceptive and misleading" standard used in most ad cases to issue an "unfairness" complaint, charging that the cigarette marketer knowingly used Joe to lure underage smokers.
RJR declined comment last week on what it called "speculation."
NO SIGN THAT SHOP WILL BE CHARGED
There was no indication that Mezzina/Brown, New York, which created the current Joe Camel ads, would be charged in the FTC action.
The FTC action represents a sharp reversal from three years ago, when the agency in a 3-2 vote rejected taking action on Joe.
"Although it may seem intuitive to some" that Joe Camel leads more children to smoke, three commissioners wrote at the time, "the evidence to support that intuition is not there."
But that was before the Clinton administration began a major attack on underage smoking that included the Food & Drug Administration gathering information and issuing rules on tobacco ads. It also predated Liggett Group's recent admission that tobacco companies had targeted kids.
In addition, there have since been changes in the commission's membership.
In July 1996, U.S. Rep. Tim Roe-mer (D., Ind.) and 66 other House members asked the agency to re-examine Camel's advertising.
"In view of new evidence and the growing concern about the relationship between cigarette advertising and underage smoking, we believe there is justification to reopen this investigation," said their letter to the FTC.
Mr. Roemer said last week he is hopeful the agency now will ban Joe Camel.
"If it is illegal to sell to youths, it is as prohibitive to advertise and entice them," he said. "Joe Camel is a great test case. Obviously, they are not doing this to make a 52-year-old get excited but to make a 10-year-old think smoking is a cool, hip thing to do."
JOE MAY BE DYING ANYWAY
The FTC action against Joe comes at a time when Joe may be dying anyway from legal and public pressure.
After a decade of using Joe, rjr is already lessening the spokescamel's role in ads. In March, the company broke new print campaigns for Camel and Camel Lights that use pictures of people blowing out cigarette smoke in the shape of the camel that appears on the brand's pack.
RJR continues to use Joe in outdoor ads and some magazine ads, and Joe still has a major presence on promotional items and in catalogs.
Joe would also be a victim of tobacco liability settlement talks that some reports last week had nearing conclusion.
Details emerging indicated that under a proposed settlement, tobacco companies would not only curb ads in magazines reaching those under 18, drop outdoor boards, bar Internet marketing, limit creative to ads without people and mascots, and ban event sponsorships and point-of-purchase displays, but have now offered to ban any outdoor ads, accept major restrictions in the marketing of "light" brands and fund a hefty anti-tobacco ad campaign.
$1 BIL IN ANTI-SMOKING ADS
The campaign, to be administered by the FDA, could provide a up to $1 billion a year for anti-tobacco advertising, with ad spending split between the states and the FDA.
Old Joe would also be barred under the original FDA tobacco rules. The Clinton administration is appealing a North Carolina federal judge's recent ruling setting aside of the advertising portion of those rules.
RJR, however, has continued to defend Joe, as recently as last week, saying the campaign was aimed at getting Philip Morris USA's Marlboro smokers in their 20s to switch to Camel. "Nothing has changed that would rattle our confidence in Joe," said an RJR spokeswoman. "The Joe campaign continues to do the job it was designed to do, which is to move adult smokers from competing brands to the Camel column."
FTC action would end an unusual history for Joe. Designed by a British artist in 1974 for a French ad campaign, Joe was brought to the U.S. in 1979 by Trone Advertising, Greensboro, N.C., as part of a 75th birthday campaign for the cigarette brand. It was later picked up by McCann-Erickson, New York, and the character's use expanded by Mezzina/Brown when it won the business.
CAMPAIGN REVIVED CAMEL
The campaign revived Camel; the brand's market share grew from 4% in 1988 to 4.8% last year, according to John C. Maxwell Jr., an analyst with Wheat First Butcher Singer. The growth was crucial to RJR, which has seen its veteran Winston and Salem brands dropping.
Losing Joe, however, may not be the blow for RJR that anti-tobacco groups expect, according to Gary Black, analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein.
"It's not the cartoon campaign that's driven the brand's growth," said Mr. Black. "It's the irreverent, hip, cutting-edge" tone of the ads that has grown the brand. And that, he said, can continue without Joe.1
Copyright May 1997, Crain Communications Inc.