Collection: Joe Camel Cartoons
In a transparent effort to greatly increase their market share of young smokers, R.J. Reynolds initiated the now infamous Old Joe Camel campaign for the Camel brand in 1988. The campaign, which ran continuously for 9 years until 1997, featured a cool dromedary cartoon character and faced almost immediate criticism from the public for influencing children to smoke.
From the campaign’s inception, young people were primary targets. The first Joe Camel ad in the United States was released to celebrate Camel’s 75th “birthday” and was based on a French advertisement for Camel filters from 1974 (1). The original French Joe Camel was reported to be a “smash” because “it’s about as young as you can get, and aims right at the young adult smoker Camel needs to attract” (2). (The term “young adult smoker” is industry jargon for the youngest spectrum of customers legally targeted through cigarette ads.)
Studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) confirmed that Joe Camel is attractive to children. Indeed, a 1991 article published in JAMA reveals that the Old Joe Camel advertisements “are far more successful at marketing Camel cigarettes to children than to adults” based on kids’ ability to recall the character and find him appealing (3). More shocking still is another JAMA publication from 1991 which revealed that 91.3% of 6-year-old children were able to correctly match Old Joe with a picture of a cigarette, nearly the same number of children as were able to match Mickey Mouse with the Disney Channel logo (4).
Internal documents reveal that young people were further targeted with the ads through appropriation of youth slang. The “smooth character” slogan associated with the Old Joe campaign was reportedly intended to impart a “dual meaning,” indicating that the product itself was literally a smooth, non-irritating smoke, and, in youth slang terms, that the smoker himself had a “smooth (slick or cool) personality” (5).
Additionally, in order to attract young males, Joe was intended to be hyper-masculine, as is evidenced by his face, which closely resembles male reproductive organs. “Reinforcement of masculinity is an important want among a large percentage of males,” another internal document says, “and this is particularly true among less educated and younger adult males (i.e., Camel’s prime prospect)” (6).
Indeed, R.J. Reynolds goes on to reveal the exact target demographic for Camel: “Increasing RJRT’s share among younger adult smokers is a key corporate objective. Within the established RJRT product line, the highest priority has been placed behind Camel as the best short and long-term opportunity to penetrate younger adult smokers … Younger adult smokers are critically important to RJRT long term: They have been critical factor in growth/decline of every major brand/company in past 50 years. They will continue to be important in future, as market renewal stems almost entirely from 18 year old smokers“ (6).
By 1994, many groups, including the American Medical Association, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, the Surgeon General, 27 state attorneys general, and more had urged the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to take action against R.J.R.’s Joe Camel campaign. At the time, the FTC decided there was not enough evidence to ban the campaign, but it reopened the case in 1997, when R.J.R. pulled the Joe Camel campaign, seemingly voluntarily. Though the smooth camel eventually left the scene, his 9-year stint in magazines, phone booths, and billboards guaranteed that he was repeatedly introduced to children, adolescents and young adults for almost a decade. Additionally, Old Joe freebies and prizes, ranging from boxer briefs and baseball caps to fishing lures and card games guarantee that Joe remains immortalized.
1. “Regional News from Art Direction: The Magazine of Visual Communication, June 1975.” RJ Reynolds. June 1975. http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/mmx62d00/pdf
2. Blackmer, Dana. “Memo to Rich McReynolds from Dana Blackmer Re: French Camel Filter Ad.” RJ Reynolds. 7 Feb 1974. http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/eve76b00/pdf
3. DiFranza, Joseph R., MD, et al. “RJR Nabisco’s Cartoon Camel Promotes Camel Cigarettes to Children.” JAMA 1991;266:33149-3153.
4. Fischer, Paul M., MD, et al. “Brand Logo Recognition by Children Aged 3 to 6 years.” JAMA 1991;266:3145-3148.
5. “Camel General Market Campaign Focus Group Research. French Camel.” RJ Reynolds. 1987. http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/dtf44d00/pdf
6. Caufield, R.T. “Camel New Advertising Campaign Development.” 12 March 1986. http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/vkm76b00/pdf