The rise and fall of the Joe Camel cartoon is a lesson in disastrous advertising. As a marketing ploy, Joe was allegedly created to draw smokers away from Camel's competitors. The Joe Camel advertising campaigns utilized a masculine camel, or “smooth character,” to create an association between the brand’s cigarettes and the high life. However, when suspicions arose concerning the true audience impacted by these campaigns, attitudes about the smoking ads quickly shifted.
As the influence of these Joe Camel advertising campaigns on children and teens came into question, a firestorm of debate was ignited amongst Washington politicians, advertisers, and academic communities. The debate raised the questions: Did these Joe Camel advertisements have a stronger impact on under-aged consumers than the adults they were ostensibly intended for? Did the Joe Camel cartoon, and the associated marketing ploys in the form of Joe Camel cards and memorabilia, subliminally target children in an attempt to prime them to become future smokers?
The Joe Camel cartoon advertisement debate continued in the United States for nearly a decade, only to come to a sudden conclusion in 1997. R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company claimed they discontinued the ads because they simply wished to move on to another campaign. The Joe Camel controversy will likely remain a pivotal example of the complicated relationship between advertising and illicit substances for decades to come.
In 1988, Joe Camel made his first US appearance in Camel’s 75th anniversary campaign: "75 years and still smokin'!"
Long before R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company launched the campaign, however, the caricature of Joe Camel had already been influencing existing and would-be smokers across Europe for over a decade.
The anthropomorphized camel was designed in 1974 by a British artist named Nicholas Price, and was based off of the camel figure in the original Camel logo (known as "Old Joe"). Old Joe had been used by the cigarette company ever since its first advertising campaigns launched back in 1913. This advertising strategy shift was crafted for a French campaign and featured Joe sporting a Foreign Legion hat.
With the launch of Camel's 75th-anniversary campaign, developed with the help of the McCann-Erickson advertising company, US audiences were introduced to a completely revamped version of the Camel logo they had previously been familiar with.
To better compete with tobacco industry leaders like Marlboro, Camel hoped to “freshen up [their] brand’s stale image” with the anthropomorphic camel. Joe was depicted in fashionable threads like leather jackets and tuxedos, and often in the company of a woman.
While past campaigns had invited smokers to “...walk a mile for a Camel,” this new, “jazzier” character promoted a much different image. Joe appeared to be a smooth-talking man’s man (or camel man) who invited viewers to become a “smooth character” like himself.
Critics soon argued that the ads were playing off of “the desire of young people to be hip” and that such an advertisement would increase rates of underaged smoking.
With the introduction of Joe Camel, it became evident that R. J. Reynolds was using the advertising campaign to reflect “a more contemporary image among the crucially important segment of younger male smokers.” But why was this specific population so important?
According to Roy Burry, who was the senior vice president of Kidder, Peabody & Company (and a close follower of all the happenings in the tobacco industry at this time), "The over-21-year-old smoker is the most prized of all consumers... A young smoker will stick with smoking longer than an older smoker, who [perishes] or quits."
Additionally, by creating advertising campaigns that present smoking as being “pleasurable and [making] a person more popular and attractive,” the company could more easily convince young people that they, too, will enjoy smoking, according to a study by Dr. Joseph R. DiFranza with the University of Massachusetts.
There is a catch, of course. Due to the hazardous nature of cigarettes, tobacco companies are constantly up against the challenge of replenishing a depleting consumer base - hence the importance of instating brand loyalties with consumers while they are still young.
One of the most notable scandals surrounding the Joe Camel cartoon was his appeal to children and underaged consumers. Even though R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company repeatedly denied any intent for the character to attract the attention of underaged audiences, the statistical data suggested otherwise.
By 1991 (four years after Joe Camel’s first US appearance), the Journal of the American Medical Association had completed a study that suggested the cartoon character “was widely recognized by and popular among children.” Another study in a New York Times article noted that “even without cigarette advertising on television... six-year-old children were as familiar with Old Joe Camel as they were with the Mickey Mouse logo for the Disney Channel.”
One study published by Dr. Paul M. Fischer with the Medical College of Georgia claimed that the intentions of R. J. Reynolds' Joe Camel ads were "irrelevant" if their advertising "affects what children know." In other words, "Cigarette advertising may be an important health risk for children."
The same study also showed that, upon surveying 229 preschoolers, nearly "30% of 3-year-olds and more than 90 percent of 6-year-olds correctly linked Old Joe Camel to a cigarette."