BOSTON. — Boston -- Old Joe was just another cartoon character when he immigrated here from European ads. He ended up in the hands of consultants and message marketers who decided he was the candidate to grab the hearts, minds and lungs of Americans.
Soon, his name recognition became the envy of the entire field of competitors. Among certain segments of the population today, Old Joe Camel is as well known as Mickey Mouse. Why, 91.3 percent of 6-year-olds not only know Old Joe, but what he stands for. That's more than can be said for Old George Bush.
Joe's image is fixed in the public mind as a Smooth Character. He is known far and wide for shooting pool, scuba diving and, of course, smoking.
He also has an acknowledged sex appeal. There is first and foremost his, uh, nose, prominently displayed, or dare I say hung, on thousands of billboards. Then there are the girls who surround him at the Oasis, and the T-shirts, and the promotion of Hump Day.
But now, despite all the efforts of campaign consultants and media experts, the Camel Cigarettes candidate may finally have met his match. This week, the surgeon general, Antonia Novello, along with the American Medical Association, called on RJR Nabisco to dump the dromedary. And they asked magazines and retailers to ban the cartoon cigarette pusher from their premises.
The opposition has finally proved that Old Joe's campaign message is directed at citizens too young to smoke. A growing body of research shows that this commercial creature has been deliberately directed by his handlers to get children sold on smoking. He's working the underage nicotine beat.
An assortment of studies in last December's Journal of the American Medical Association showed that Old Joe was extremely effective in delivering his $75 million-a-year message. Young children found the cartoon more appealing than adults did and they acted on it. Camel's share of the illegal children's cigarette market jumped from 0.5 percent to 32.8 percent in three years.
The cigarette makers, who make your average politician look like a paragon of straight-talking virtue, insist there's no proof that advertising leads to smoking among children. They advertise merely to increase their share of the adult market.
But you do the math. In any given year only some 10 percent of smokers switch brands, while 2 million quit -- 400,000 of them quit the hard way, by dying from tobacco-related illness. About 90 percent of the people who smoke started before they were 20 years old. The only source of new customers is kids.
The Camel campaign is so blatant, so pernicious a pitch to hook the young that even Advertising Age editorialized against the ads. But it has to be that blatant and that pernicious before a public made passive by smoking reacts.
The last time enough ire was raised to throw the cigarette rascals out was in 1990 when RJR test-marketed a cigarette targeted directly at African-American lungs. ''Uptown'' went down.
In fairness, Marlboro Man is not far behind the front-runner Old Joe in his pitch for the kiddie vote. The assorted ads associating slimness and smoking may do as much damage to teen-age girls the Smooth Character.
Cigarettes remain the renegade of the American system. Lethal but legal, lawful but unregulated.
If cigarettes were invented today, they'd never get on the market. But because they are on the market, we can't get them off without creating a huge underground of lawbreaking addicts. Tobacco is exempt from every federal health and safety act. The surgeon general can only ask RJR to give Joe the heave and use moral suasion against the magazine ad directors.
The only way to reduce the enormous health risks of smoking is to encourage quitting and discourage starting. But every year some 1.8 million Americans start smoking. Which brings us back to the tobacco industry's $3.6 billion-a-year ad budget -- enough money to send any cartoon figure to the White House.
My own view is that cigarette advertising is intrinsically false except for the little rectangles carrying the Surgeon General's warnings. But the worst of the pitchmen are those who stick their noses under the children's tent. So we begin with candidate Camel.
If the issue of the year is character, Old Joe is the first to go.
8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.