Superficially, Joe Camel and Chester Cheetah have little in common. One is a desert-dwelling herbivore best known for endurance, the other a savanna-dwelling carnivore famous for speed. One sells cigarettes, the other touts cheese-flavored snacks.
But during one week in March, both Joe and Chester felt the wrath of Big Mother, the conglomeration of activists and bureaucrats who look out for other people's kids. Surgeon General Antonia Novello, together with the American Medical Association, demanded that R. J. Reynolds fire Joe, the hip, cartoon version of the dromedary that has appeared on packages of Camel cigarettes for nearly 80 years. And seven advocacy groups, including Action for Children's Television and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, asked the Federal Communications Commission to prevent the television debut of Yo! It's the Chester Cheetah Show!
Big Mother wants to get rid of Joe and deprive Chester of his big break for a very simple reason: She doesn't like them. But she can't just say that; she has to show how her personal preferences correspond with the public interest. So Big Mother argues that Joe and Chester are a threat to the youth of America. This is hard to do.
It's a bit easier with Joe, since he advertises a hazardous product that children are not supposed to buy. Still, Big Mother can't point to solid research demonstrating that the Joe Camel campaign (or any cigarette advertising) increases smoking among children (or anyone). So she has to settle for research that shows the obvious: that kids are good at recognizing brand names and logos, especially cartoons.
In one frequently cited study published in the December 11 Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers asked a nonrandom sample of preschoolers, ages 3 to 6, to match 22 product logos with a dozen corresponding pictures of products. Overall, 51 percent of the kids correctly matched a picture of Joe to a picture of a cigarette. But adults and children alike recognize many brands without wanting to buy them. Fifty-four percent of the kids in the study were also familiar with the Chevrolet logo, but we don't see them tooling around in Camaros or Corvettes.
Yet Big Mother was able to use this and other studies in the same issue of JAMA, none of which even shows a correlation between the Camel campaign and the amount of cigarette consumption among minors, to paint Joe as a schoolyard drug pusher. "Smoking Among Children Is Found Linked to Cartoon Advertisements," The New York Times announced. The same story noted in passing that "there has not been an overall increase in smoking by children and teen-agers since the cartoon campaigns began."
The case against Chester is even weaker. His enemies simply assert that his show would amount to a "program-length commercial"—not because it would promote Cheetos but simply because of Chester's presence. The show's producers note that many cartoon characters, including the venerable Mickey Mouse, also push products. Chester's critics respond that going from entertainment to commercials is different from doing it the other way around. Because of his background as a snack-food advocate, Chester is permanently tainted.
And so the objections to Chester's show dissolve into sheer superstition. "Chester Cheetah," observes the Times, "has become the demon symbol for children's advocacy groups in the same way that Joe Camel…has become the epitome of evil for those opposed to smoking among the young."
Although their sensibilities may be different, the aims and tactics of the Joe and Chester bashers resemble those of antipornography crusaders. Both use the rationale of child protection to conceal an attempt to impose their own sense of aesthetics on others. Even their language is similar. "We think these are disgusting ads," a major anti-Joe activist told the Los Angeles Times. "These are the most indecent of the lot."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "’Toons Out".