CHARLOTTE (AP) - Joe Camel, the cigarette-hawking cartoon character who was already on the endangered species list despite his marketing prowess over the last decade, met his corporate extinction Thursday.
Accused for years of using the jazzy character to appeal to kids, R.J. Reynolds said it was dropping the campaign in favor of a straight-forward illustration of a camel that has been on the pack for generations.
RJR spokesman Nat Walker suggested the Joe Camel campaign simply had run its course.
"We had it for 10 years and it did what we intended it to do," he said from the tobacco company's headquarters in Winston-Salem. "It was brought on to reposition a brand that had been continuing to lose market share for some time."
While propelling sales, Joe Camel also generated more than his share of negative publicity. Tobacco foes vehemently charged he was created to appeal to children, not adult smokers.
"Obviously, there's been a controversy surrounding Joe Camel for some time," Walker said. "That's the reason why we began looking for alternatives."
Joe Camel will be replaced by the ordinary, more lifelike camel on the label of the cigarette packs, the company announced Thursday in a one-page news release.
Walker said the decision on Joe Camel was limited to the United States. It does not impact international markets, since sales overseas are handled by R.J. Reynolds International. Walker said the character's exposure outside the U.S. was limited to a few foreign markets.
Joe Camel already was expected to become extinct following the recent settlement between the tobacco industry and states suing to recover money lost to treat smoking-related illnesses.
The deal would ban cigarette companies from using cartoons or human figures in tobacco advertisements.
"Joe Camel is dead. He had it coming," said White House aide Bruce Reed. "We're grateful to the attorneys general for helping to bring this about. It's no accident."
Michael Moore, the Mississippi state attorney general who was one of the architects of the landmark $368 billion settlement, applauded the news.
"This is a signal by the tobacco companies that they are very serious about not marketing to children anymore," he said. "We see this as a gesture of good faith."
Donna Shalala, Health and Human Services secretary, said: "I'm very pleased to say goodbye to Joe Camel. Bye-bye."
One tobacco industry analyst said Thursday's announcement came as no surprise.
"A keen observer of Joe Camel would have seen the increased emphasis of the Camel silhouette (in Camel ads) over the last 12 months," said Martin Feldman, who follows RJR for Smith Barney. "They have been phasing in the more traditional camel image."
Still, Feldman also views the decision as a reflection of the changes going on within the industry.
"It represents the views of (RJR-Nabisco chairman) Steve Goldstone," he said. "He recognizes the criticism of the company. This suggests goodwill, a major effort to reconcile with their opponents."
John Banzhaf of the antismoking group, Action for Smoking and Health, or ASH, called it a "tremendous reversal" in the tobacco industry's historic stance.
"This says to me that the tobacco industry is under such tremendous pressure to make concessions to get the immunity they want (from future tobacco lawsuits)," he said. "These guys can be pushed."
David A. Logan, a product liability expert at Wake Forest University's law school, was surprised to see RJR change its marketing strategy after the cigarette company recently sued the Federal Trade Commission to protect its use of the Joe Camel character.
"Camel is one of the few full-price brands that is growing," he said. "To change the ad scheme does not make sense."
In June, R.J. Reynolds filed a lawsuit accusing the FTC of harassment and political opportunism in its efforts to end the use of Joe Camel.
The FTC moved to ban the ad campaign on May 28, charging the nation's No. 2 tobacco firm with unfair advertising practices. Specifically, anti-tobacco activists as well as the commission claimed the cartoon character was designed to lure young adults to the brand.
Three years ago, the commission voted to close its investigation into the campaign, finding insufficient evidence that it was intended to make smokers out of children.
According to the FTC, Camel cigarettes were used by less than 3 percent of smokers under 18 before Joe Camel's rebirth 10 years ago. Six years later, the brand controlled more than 13 percent of those smokers.
The FTC applauded the move, but also said the company should sign an enforceable order preventing it from, in the future, resuming the Joe Camel campaign.
The agency also wants RJR to agree to consumer education messages discouraging young people from smoking and to keep and report to the FTC data on its share of the underage market, said Jodie Bernstein, director of the agency's bureau of consumer protection.
"Reynolds should be willing to meet with us to discuss the remaining issues in this litigation that we believe are necessary to protect the public health," Bernstein said.
Logan said it will take more time to determine precisely why RJR decided now to kill the hugely successful Joe Camel advertising campaign.
"There's always the suspicion the tobacco companies can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat," he said. "They fought the package warnings in the 1970s and it saved their rear ends in the 1990s. Who knows how they are going to play this out?
For his part, Walker called it a business decision.
"We'll let others judge how big a concession the immediate removal of Joe Camel ads will be," he said. "This is not a rash decision. The time is right to move on and continue to grow."
The new campaign will begin on billboards this week and in magazines in August.
"We are taking this new campaign nationally because of the very positive response we have heard from adult smokers who have seen some of the new ads that we have run in selected magazines since March," said Fran Creighton, Reynolds vice president of marketing for Camel.
"They have told us that the ads are creative, fun and on target with their lifestyles," Creighton said.
The new campaign, titled "What You're Looking For," has been in development since early 1996, the company said. R.J. Reynolds said it has been testing the new advertising campaign for the past several months.
"We said as far back as 1992 that if we found a campaign that's as effective as Joe Camel we would use it," Walker said. " We think we've found it. Our marketing tests got positive response from adult smokers."
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