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Joe Camel has worked hard for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. since 1987 and, by the normal benchmarks for an advertising campaign, this has been a good one-a success at a time when skeptics question advertising's value.

RJR's "Joe" ads rejuvenated the brand image for Camel cigarettes, and revitalized the Camel business. Camel had been "your father's cigarette"; now it basks in the "hip" young animated imagery of Joe and friends.

So it's a good time to kill off Joe Camel for good-before things get worse.

Just as Joe has been working for RJR, by attracting young adults to the brand, he's been working for tobacco advertising's foes, too. These ads have been a club in their hands to bang away at public tolerance of tobacco advertising with charges that Joe is designed to attract the attention of young kids. And, whatever RJR's intent, Joe does get noticed by kids.

We first suggested "old Joe must go" in January 1992. With a brand success on its hands, RJR not surprisingly stayed its course. But the attacks on Joe have gone on and on and on.

There is only scant comfort in this month's refusal by the Federal Trade Commission to prosecute the Joe campaign as an example of "unfair" advertising. In fact, that makes it easier for RJR to quit while it is ahead.

Anti-tobacco members of Congress will drag FTC over the coals for its decision, and pressure will mount on President Clinton to see that a new FTC chairman, expected to be named soon, will be tougher on Joe Camel and other tobacco ads. And Joe can crop up again at FTC, to be sure.

Of course, Joe's retirement won't silence militant tobacco foes. But it will take a weapon from their hands as they try to radicalize middle America against all tobacco advertising-just as they have won over middle America to the cause of "non-smoker's rights."

RJR should reassess the situation now. We say that while reiterating that we strongly oppose government bans on truthful advertising for legal products, including cigarettes.

RJR may choose, again, to stand on its rights and stick with the Joe Camel imagery and advertising, despite the fact it will mean more battles in Congress and possibly the courts-battles advertising may well lose. That course puts the future of all tobacco advertising at risk, to insure sales and profits for Camel today.

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