Meet Joe Camel, The Smooth Character Who Encouraged Children To Smoke

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.

  • Joe Camel Was Drawn By A European Artist In The 1970s And Unveiled In The US In 1988
    Photo: R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company

    Joe Camel Was Drawn By A European Artist In The 1970s And Unveiled In The US In 1988

    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.

  • The Sharp-Dressed Camel Was An Attempt To Make The Brand Look 'Smooth'

    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.

  • 'A Young Smoker Will Stick With Smoking Longer Than An Older Smoker...'

    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.

  • Joe Camel Was As Familiar To Six-Year-Olds As Mickey Mouse

    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."

  • Camel’s Parent Company Insisted The Campaign Was Designed To 'Encourage Adult Smokers To Switch Brands'

    After its first advertising campaigns were released in 1913, Camel quickly became one of the most popular cigarettes in the US. Yet because the company promoted unfiltered cigarettes, it was unable to compete with the rise of filtered cigarettes - a market shift spearheaded by brands like Marlboro in the 1950s.

    From that point on, Camel advertisers found themselves playing catch-up. They developed new campaigns in an attempt to compete with the shifting market, yet no campaign came close to the success of Joe Camel. 

    According to Mezzina/Brown Inc., the agency that R. J. Reynolds worked with after October 1989, Joe Camel was meant to be “a whimsical caricature... designed to appeal to the adult smoker and to encourage adult smokers to switch brands.”

    Even when critics claimed that Camel’s ads were strategically targeting young people, R. J. Reynolds continued to assert that Joe Camel could be “anything but a standard market tactic meant to persuade adult smokers to switch to Camel from bigger brands like Marlboro.”

  • Joe Camel Also Had An Entire 'Hard Pack' Of Cartoon Buddies And A Merchandising Campaign Based Around 'Camel Cash'
    Photo: Joe Haupt / Flickr

    Joe Camel Also Had An Entire 'Hard Pack' Of Cartoon Buddies And A Merchandising Campaign Based Around 'Camel Cash'

    In addition to voicing concerns over the advertisements themselves, critics also lambasted the various promotional tactics Camel used outside the realm of billboards and magazine ads.

    One such promotional tactic, "Camel Cash," was essentially a Camel-branded currency that allowed those who purchased the cigarette packs to earn points, or C-notes. With C-notes, Camel smokers could obtain Joe Camel-themed merchandise. Promotional merchandise options included everything from Joe Camel-branded T-shirts, baseball caps, watches, inflatable mattresses, and more. 

    The problem was that many of these items, and the system of points through which they were earned, were especially attractive to young people. Dr. John P. Pierce from the University of California at San Diego explained to the New York Times in 1991: “These are all items that kids would want, and the only way to get them is to buy Camel cigarettes.”

    In addition to the C-notes, Joe Camel was also accompanied by a group of cartoon friends - Josephine, Eddie, Floyd, Max, and Buster - in the cigarette packages’ “five-pack collectors’ series.”