FTC charges Joe Camel is 'unfair' advertising

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A sharply divided Federal Trade Commission voted 3-2 to open legal action against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.'s Joe Camel advertising campaign, alleging in a complaint that use of the cartoonlike Joe Camel figure represents "unfair" advertising.

The commission staff sought a cease and desist order that would bar future use of the Joe figure in media accessible to youngsters, limiting it to adults-only venues such as bars. It also asks that RJR be ordered to run an unspecified amount of "corrective advertising." The action had been expected.

Under FTC procedures, the Joe Camel case will be referred to an FTC administrative law judge for trial. If RJR elects to fight rather than settle, the trial could be long and costly. It would also be closely watched by advertisers outside the tobacco industry as a rare test of FTC's authority to compel changes in advertising it considers unfair but not deceptive.

Camel agency Mezzina/Brown, New York, was not named as a respondent in the FTC complaint. Neither RJR nor the agency had any immediate comment.

Reynolds parent RJR Nabisco, however, has offered to discontinue the "Joe" ads in separate talks with state attorneys general and health groups aimed at resolving tobacco industry liability lawsuits.

In a 3-2 vote three years ago, the FTC had rejected a commission staff request to prosecute RJR, citing insufficient evidence to link the ads to underage smoking. In today's action, three FTC members -- Chairman Robert Pitofsky and Commissioners Janet Steiger and Christine Varney -- voted to issue the complaint. Commissioners Roscoe Starek and Mary Azcuenaga voted no; both had also opposed FTC action three years ago.

In the past, RJR has defended the Joe Camel campaign, contending it is a successful attempt to get smokers to switch brands, especially from Philip Morris USA's Marlboro, and to turn around Camel's old-fashion image. It disputed charges that Joe causes kids to smoke, or to smoke more, arguing that children smoke because friends or relatives smoke, not because of advertising.

Copyright May 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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