Joe, the killer camel?

June 27, 1994

Who is the most over-demonized pop culture star of our time: Michael Jackson? Madonna? How about Joe Camel.

The cartoon dromedary that R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. uses to pitch its Camel cigarettes has become an outsized symbol of the public's justified concern over health risks related to smoking. Last winter, U.S. Surgeon General M. Joycelyn Elders urged the banning of the campaign, which she said charmed adolescents into thinking that smokers are sexy and successful. In Maryland, gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Mickey Steinberg brandished a "Joe Camel" windbreaker at a hearing on cigarette taxes as proof that tobacco companies are targeting children.

We're not arguing that tobacco companies don't want to hook young customers, nor that pressure shouldn't continue to discourage smoking. But we're dubious that Joe Camel is the Pied Piper of tar and nicotine. So is the Federal Trade Commission, which recently voted not to charge R.J. Reynolds with unfair advertising practices over the Camel campaign. The FTC said that myriad factors lead children to try smoking and that the Camel campaign couldn't be isolated as a cause.

We've wondered about the attacks on Joe Camel since a study a few years ago said young children recognized him more than Mickey Mouse. Anyone who spends any time around children knows that's ridiculous. The study showed kids a silhouette of Mickey that might as well have been a Rorschach ink blot, and * *TC picture of camel Joe. Walt Disney himself mightn't have recognized the Mickey figure in that comparison, but it did make for eye-grabbing headlines. Joe Camel probably does more to energize opinion against the tobacco industy than to get kids to smoke.

If the Joe Camel gig is so seductive to youth, why don't more advertisers use cartoon humanoids? Most everyone else sells to today's youth market with hip-hop music, athlete endorsements and a "let's put one over on the adults" attitude. A goofy camel with a big schnozz is every kid's idol? Sure. Furthermore, we have seen teen-agers in every manner of dress, but we've yet to see one wearing that silly jacket that Mr. Steinberg displayed.

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