Joe Camel, the most vilified cartoon character in history, is retiring. Recently, R.J. Reynolds announced that it's replacing the 9-year-old "Smooth Character" campaign with one that makes more subtle use of dromedaries. The company said it was time to try something new. Perhaps so, but it seems likely that the complaints of anti-smoking activists,public-health specialists, politicians, bureaucrats and editorialists helped rush Joe out of town.
If so, one thing is clear: Joe was railroaded. Although the charge was repeated endlessly, there was never any persuasive evidence that he encouraged underage smoking. In fact, smoking among teen-agers actually dropped during the first five years of the campaign, beginning to rise only in 1993. According to data from the Monitoring the Future Project at the University of Michigan, the share of high school seniors who had smoked daily in the previous month fell from 18.7 percent in 1987 to 17.2 percent in 1992. In the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, the share of 12- to 17-year-olds who had smoked cigarettes at all in the previous month fell from 22.7 percent in 1988 to 18.4 percent in 1992.
These trends did not stop anti-smoking groups from claiming that Joe was leading children to nicotine addiction in droves. In March 1992, the Coalition on Smoking or Health asked the Federal Trade Commission to ban Joe Camel, an idea that was supported by the American Medical Association, Surgeon General Antonia Novello, 27 state attorneys general and the FTC's staff. But in June 1994, the commission decided not to take action against R.J. Reynolds, because the record did not show that Joe was attracting kids to cigarettes. Last May, after a change in personnel but no change in the relevant evidence, the FTC reversed itself, voting to seek an order that would keep Joe out of children's sight.
Joe's critics did not need evidence. Wasn't it obvious that R.J. Reynolds was targeting children? Joe Camel was a cartoon, after all. To which R.J. Reynolds replied that Snoopy sells life insurance and the Pink Panther pitches fiberglass insulation, but no one assumes these products are aimed at kids. The company insisted that hip, irreverent Joe was designed to attract young adults who considered Camel an old man's cigarette.
Tobacco's opponents countered that, even if we believed R.J. Reynolds' claim about its intentions (which they didn't for a second), the actual impact of the campaign was another question entirely. As former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler put it, "Tell me how you design an advertising campaign that affects only 18- year-olds."
But this whole debate, entertaining though it was, obscured the crux of the matter: Were more teen-agers smoking than would have if Joe Camel had never been introduced? None of the studies cited as proof of Joe's power actually addressed this question.
The most famous one, reported in The Journal of the American Medical Association in 1991, found that 6-year-olds matched Joe with a picture of cigarettes about as often as they matched Mickey Mouse with the Disney Channel logo. This pairing was provocative but not terribly illuminating. Recognizing Joe Camel is not tantamount to smoking, any more than recognizing the logos for Ford and Chevrolet (which most of the kids did) is tantamount to driving.
The researchers seemed to assume that familiarity breeds affection. But this is not necessarily the case. In fact, a follow-up study commissioned by R.J. Reynolds and published in the Journal of Marketing confirmed that most 6-year-olds correctly associate Joe with cigarettes. But it also found that the vast majority of them expressed negative attitudes toward smoking.
Two other studies published in the same issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association found that Camel's market share increased after Joe was introduced–which, presumably, was the whole idea, though R.J. Reynolds would claim that any impact on underage smokers was incidental. One study reported an astounding 66-fold increase in the share of teen-agers who preferred Camels, from 0.5 percent in 1988 to 33 percent in 1991. But this claim was based on surveys that were neither representative of the national population nor comparable to each other. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Teen-age Attitudes and Practices Survey, which uses a nationwide sample, suggest a much less dramatic shift toward Camels. In 1993, 13.3 percent of respondents said they usually bought Camels, compared with 8.1 percent in 1989.
Even if Joe encouraged a shift in brand preferences, that does not mean he raised the overall level of smoking. As a parent, I am concerned about whether my daughter smokes, not whether she smokes Camels instead of Marlboros. Such subtleties were lost in the flood of outrage generated by The Journal of the American Medical Association studies, encouraged by headlines such as "Camels for Kids" (Time), "I'd Toddle a Mile for a Camel" (Newsweek), "Joe Camel Is Also Pied Piper, Research Finds" (The Wall Street Journal) and "Study: Camel Cartoon Sends Kids Smoke Signals" (Boston Herald). Nowadays, it's taken for granted that Joe is guilty of corrupting minors, an accusation his employer seemed to confirm by abandoning him.
Poor Joe. He must be bitter. R.J. Reynolds should be thankful he's a cartoon character. Otherwise, he might become an anti-smoking activist.