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The notorious Joe Camel is dead and buried, stubbed out by a syndicate of state attorneys general who have shaken down the tobacco industry for some $208 billion, in what is John Grisham-esquely known as The Settlement. But who would have guessed that out of Joe's ashes would rise a minor renaissance in cigarette advertising? Camel, Red Kamel and Winston -- all R.J. Reynolds brands, not so coincidentally -- have been running campaigns with humor and attitude: ads that, by American standards, are almost revolutionary for this category. Hip, sexy Camel photography by David LaChapelle and Moshe Brakha; a man's head up his ass for Winston, and cynically cool headlines like "There ain't no freakin' wizard" next to a fat lady in red slippers; this work demands to be noticed, and most of it arguably can stand up to all the attention. Attention that is surely being paid in part by teenagers and even younger 'tweens.' Is this an ironic consequence of The Settlement? It's as plain as the nose on Joe Camel's face.

"When the tobacco companies were being investigated, and Joe Camel was under fire and even the Marlboro Man was in danger, I believe there was a lot of creative exploration on the part of the advertisers," says Bruce Dundore, CCO at L.A.'s Asher & Partners, a California Department of Health anti-tobacco agency since 1994. "And some of the work that resulted is probably better than anything they've ever done before."

In the case of the Camel and Red Kamel campaigns, few would disagree. The "Mighty Tasty" campaign for Camel, from Mezzina/Brown, New York, the Joe Camel shop, debuted in May '98, marking a radical departure from the find-the-Camel-logo conventionality of "What You're Looking For." Along with the retro sci-fi and pinup babes and World War II wonders for Red Kamel, from Philadelphia's Gyro, these sister smokes are absolutely at the top of the new cigarette pack.

"They're very good," says Crispin Porter & Bogusky CD Alex Bogusky, whose Miami agency does its own brand of cool anti-tobacco work for the state of Florida. "I wouldn't say I like them. I'd agree that they're entertaining and fairly arresting."

"I think they're hysterical," opines Deutsch, New York, associate CD Liz Gumbinner. "It is a breakthrough in the category. It's refreshing. But as a self-righteous ex-smoker, I don't know if I want people to like cigarette advertising."

Indeed, these ads "make me want to smoke," Bogusky points out. "Oh wait, no, they make me want to change brands," he adds acidly.

Clearly, despite the ban on cartoon characters, the issue of hooking new 21-plus smokers and attracting legally underage smokers makes tobacco advertising look worse the better it gets. There are those who just can't view the category objectively. "I'm not impressed by any of it," snaps elder statesman George Lois. "I'm so anti-smoking that it's all infuriating to me." According to Lois, "Mighty Tasty" is "kind of unfocused and I can't even figure out most of it, and I don't think the rest of the world takes the time to figure it out either. My general impression is they don't cut through in any way, shape or form. It's like another page of editorial in the magazine. I don't think it's good advertising."

But not being an "adult competitive smoker," as the tobacco companies call them, Lois is not the target. And he's no spring chicken, either. As for Big Tobacco's claims that they're not marketing to kids, "it's a bunch of malarkey," says Dundore. "This stuff probably appeals to kids in larger ways than Joe Camel could ever hope to. It's sophisticated and it's got a tremendous amount of irreverence. They're not selling overtly, they're entertaining. All these things go hand in hand with the way people between ages 10 and 18 perceive advertising."

"What they're doing is sending up danger, making sport of our 'curb your dog and your desires, wear your seatbelt and your rubber,' " says Creativity columnist and Adcult USA author James Twitchell. "The ads are never saying 'live dangerously,' because they don't have to. All they have to do is to mock convention. And boy, do they ever. The invocation of the Motion Picture Code is so great. It takes the rule seriously, only to subvert it. Kids have been going to PG-13 and R movies since they were 9 years old, so what's the big deal with having to be 18 to smoke?"

Furthermore, "They've added warning labels on top of the warning labels, thereby undoing the original ones," says Bogusky. "It's fairly brilliant, sinister stuff."

There are yet more angles to "Mighty Tasty." Look at the well-known "Farmer's Daughter" ad, says Staz Tsiavos, who was an art director at Mezzina/Brown in the Joe Camel days. "This departs from anything that's been done before." Unlike the previous "What You're Looking For" campaign, which played to the traditional "self-indulgence aspect -- the stiff drinks, the hot babes -- there's a dark side to some of the new work in which people say, 'Who gives a fuck, I'm going to smoke. So leave me alone.' It's almost like a self-hatred," Tsiavos says. "And the guy in this ad is saying, in effect, 'I know this farmer is going to kill me if I sleep with his daughter, but I'm going to do it anyway.' As with smoking, it's like, 'I know it's going to kill me, but who cares?' "

There's a truth there -- or at least a half-truth. About cigarette ads in general, DeVito/Verdi, New York, CD Sal DeVito says, "There's nothing true being conveyed in the message. The only truth is the little warning sign on the bottom. That's sort of a message. Everything else is bullshit."

But it's hard not to beg to differ. There is another well-known "Mighty Tasty" ad in which a giant flaming meteor is hurtling to Earth as a couple and their dog run for the backyard fallout shelter -- the man, the woman and the pooch all carrying as many cartons of Camels as they can. Here's a pure piece of truth: A cigarette ad about addiction! How did something this astounding ever get produced? Fran Creighton, Reynolds VP-marketing for Camel and Red Kamel, isn't saying. Tobacco people don't answer questions like that, of course, and tobacco creatives are all gag-ordered by the client. She does say that the mock ratings "tell adult smokers that this is a joke." She also notes that Camel sales are up 5 percent from '97, which is no joke in the fiercely competitive cigarette wars. As for the meteor ad, "I look at all of these ads as having a very exaggerated nature," she offers. "The fact that these people think their Camels are so important that they want to take them into the bomb shelter with them is certainly done in an exaggerated manner." The other "Mighty Tasty" ads are more conventionally silly -- though one does address the class struggle, as a gorgeous maid flicks her cigarette in her idle-rich employers' lunch, rated PA for Premeditated Ashing. In all cases, though, God, or Satan, is in the details. "What we are learning is that this campaign tends to break some rules," says Creighton. "It's very busy, and this begs you to linger over it, whereas most marketers want to get their message across real fast before the reader moves on."

The ads seem derivative of Diesel's "Guide to Successful Living" series, but c'mon: the fact that a tobacco company would copy the edgy style of Diesel is nothing short of amazing. Thanks to this depth of detail, much of it provided by LaChapelle and Brakha (who shot the four "Mighty Tasty Lifestyles" spreads), "we find that there's more time spent on each ad than on average," notes Creighton. The campaign breaks rules in more ways than one. "The ads ask, 'How many rules can you find broken?' " notes Twitchell. "Just as the puzzle in the newspaper on the kiddie page asks, 'How many things are wrong in this image?' It makes smoking into a game."

Red Kamel, on the other hand, makes smoking into a retro-rocket of pure cool. Gyro has worked its way through mildly amusing stock photo campaigns, on to Vargas-style pinups and cheesy sci-fi film stills and has now topped itself with WW II ads (colorized photos shot by Brakha), some of which feature fantasy women in combat. "It really does stand out," says Mark DiMassimo of New York's DiMassimo Brand Advertising. "Not just in this category, but in any category. There's something insidiously smart about tapping into a time when cigarettes were a sign of rebellion and liberation." Sex, violence, humor, history and feminism -- all in one ad! "This is a time when, due to the necessities of war, women had to take on some of the roles of men," DiMassimo explains. "They also took on some of the privileges of men, which previously may have been considered impolite or slutty. Suddenly they could smoke publicly and proudly, along with movie stars and prostitutes. It's a cool time to look back at now, and they do it with wit and genuine insight. Too bad you have to smoke cigarettes to get some of that."

The cheesy sci-fi commando chicks are intended to be '60s B-movie moments, representing another "chapter in the same book," says Creighton. "What we're celebrating here is the vintage nature of a brand that was launched by Reynolds back in 1913." These characters are timeless, she feels, and their humor is true to the original brand as well. "Believe it or not, R.J. Reynolds -- the man -- used a relatively light-hearted teaser idea back in 1913. 'The camels are coming!' And I think Joe Camel was a more comic approach to cigarette advertising, too. So this is not inconsistent with our heritage."

One can only guess what R.J. Reynolds, the man, would think of the sort of Gen-X fringe creative usually seen from Gyro. "As a general rule," notes DiMassimo, "tobacco companies tend to get the worst advertising agencies, partly because the best agencies feel they can afford not to take their business. But occasionally they get a very creative shop like Gyro. They're really leading the way for the category."

Red Kamel has about a miniscule .2 percent share of market, according to Creighton, but "with not a lot of advertising and virtually no discounting or promotion, it's grabbed an audience and held it."

Winston, with a campaign launched by Long Haymes Carr, Winston-Salem, N.C., in mid-'97, is apparently holding an audience too, now that it found its niche idea: no additives. However, since you're smoking an attitude first and a cigarette second, the key point of the new Winston is that it represents the philosophy of "be true to oneself -- what you see is what you get," explains Winston VP-marketing Ned Leary. "It's the rejection of artificiality. And it's backed up by a product with the same attributes: 100 percent tobacco for 100 percent tobacco taste."

Leary adds, "When you talk to smokers about Winston, nine out of 10 times the first thing they'll say is 'No bull.' I'm hoping we're building a cathedral here around the 'No bull' idea and not simply the no additives." After all, other cigarettes could lose their additives. In fact, isn't the no-additives hype denigrating other Reynolds brands -- like Camel and Red Kamel -- that have additives? Yes, but "in a competitive environment, you're better off reinventing yourself than having the competition reinvent you," says Leary. "If this brand suddenly grew to 10 times its size, yes, we would have cannibalized some of our own brands, but most of those gains would have come from the competition." Winston needed a desperate solution to its problem, which was 20 years of declining sales, according to Leary. "No Bull" didn't replace a major campaign; the only ads running at the time it debuted were some flimsy Winston Select work. "In terms of an overall total brand repositioning, Winston hasn't had one till now," says Leary.

"Winston has always been a pussy smoke," says James Twitchell. Indeed, in the Golden Age, it was known mainly for the grammatical offense of "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should." Now "it's really getting tough on double-daring you to be something other than the old Winston man," Twitchell adds.

In keeping with this ballsy new approach, "they decided to make some pretty overt political statements that harken to rebellion and appeal directly to the age group they say they're not going after," says Bruce Dundore, with rabble-rousing billboards like, "Even Communists are free to smoke," and "Why do politicians smoke cigars while taxing cigarettes?"

The youth issue aside, Winston's creative isn't in the Camel/Red Kamel league, but it surely stands out among the competition. "This kind of anti-advertising is old already, but it's a smart strategy for Winston," notes DiMassimo. According to Leary, the brand's sales are now "up to stable. Right now it's light years ahead of what its historical trend says it should be doing."

Speaking of historical trends, what are we to make of this new cigarette advertising? Is this work ultimately sinful for its appeal to the "underage," or is it just good creative? "It's both," says Dundore. "What's sinful is the denial that they do it. Come on. What marketer doesn't try to get brand recognition as young as they can get? Who do they think they're kidding?"

Probably no one. Since it's true that all advertising seen by children and teens influences them in one way or another -- assimilating it is part of the way they sort out the consumer universe -- how could cigarette ads be any different, even if they wanted to be? The only solution would be a total ban on tobacco advertising, and virtually no one, with the exception of George Lois, is in favor of this. One thing is for sure: "The creative is better than ever before, and it's much harder to fight against," says Dundore. So it's time to play rough. His current anti-smoking strategy surely hits young men where they live, with limp cigarettes and the headline, "Warning: Smoking causes impotence."

Oddly enough, this is reminiscent of Leo Burnett's drab Benson & Hedges campaign, which features cartoony man-sized cigarettes that are seen in assorted flaccid postures, reclining in easy chairs and the like. (Maybe they'll update the classic B&H 101s slogan from tobacco's TV glory days: "A silly millimeter shorter.") But Dundore's taking on the brands that count, led by Marlboro, which, as James Twitchell notes, still "has all the options covered. They're dangerous -- the cowboy. And inclusive -- Marlboro country." One of Dundore's ads even features a faux Marlboro Man with a very slack smoke in his mouth. "It's aimed at the general market, but we hope the kids will get ahold of it," says Dundore of the campaign. "We're looking to make the cigarette a lot less macho."

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