Originally created 04/24/98

White House and schoolhouse still have Joe Camel to kick around



WASHINGTON -- Joe Camel was a super cigarette pitchman for 10 years, a cocky figure popular with the cartoon ladies, not to mention real customers.

Now he's back, but as a beast of burden. He carries all the baggage of an industry under attack for marketing to youth.

The White House and the schoolhouse are after him. The cartoon dromedary is every anti-smoking politician's favorite target: Are you with us or are you with Joe Camel?

Teen smoking, says President Clinton, "has everything to do with Joe Camel."

When an 8-foot Joe puppet operated by Public Citizen appeared on Capitol Hill this week in a protest against politicians who resisted anti-tobacco legislation, young people flocked to him. And lectured him about smoking.

It's a sorry fate for a suave character that turned a moribund cigarette brand into a winner while angering parents and officials who said Joe's purpose was to get minors smoking. But it's not all horrible for the humpback. Joe is still the talk of the town, and children still know who he is.

"Joe Camel was the single most effective marketing campaign targeting children in this decade," said Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "A young child who draws a positive association with a character will retain that association for years to come."

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., maker of Camels, has always denied Joe was aimed at children. Joe's defenders said kids are no more the market for Camels than is the life insurance promoted by Snoopy or the insulation hawked by the Pink Panther. Company documents, however, suggest that RJR had a keen interest in marketing to the young.

Before he started to be removed from advertising last year, Joe achieved fame among children unusual for an icon that did not appear on television. A 1991 study indicated he was about as well-known by kids as Mickey Mouse.

On Thursday, The Associated Press showed a grainy black-and-white picture of Joe, with no words or smoking symbols, to classes of fourth- and sixth-graders at Greenbriar East school in suburban Virginia. Fourth grade is the first year of anti-smoking instruction in Fairfax County; sixth is the last year before pressures to try cigarettes intensify, experts say.

There were gasps of instant recognition. Three in four knew who he was, from product displays, billboards and, in one case, from big sister's magazines.

But if there was any consensus, it was this: What a dumb camel.

"He's cool-looking," said sixth-grader Heather Foudray. "But he's telling kids it's cool to smoke."

"He's not realistic," added classmate Eric Sandler. "Because he should be, like, coughing."

When sixth-graders in another class were asked to write down a cigarette brand, Marlboro was mentioned most, followed by Camels or "Joe Camels." Only one pupil drew a blank. Fourth-graders were just as familiar with Joe but had a harder time grasping the symbolism.

"What's the point?" asked one. "Camels can't light a match."

The exercise was not a scientific sampling of youth opinion. Instead, it showed how familiar Joe is to pupils at one school even though he is not mentioned in the anti-drug curriculum, and how kids educated about smoking have concluded on their own -- at least for now -- that "he stinks .... he has brain damage ... he's stupid."

About 20 miles east, advocates of sweeping legislation to control smoking and raise tobacco taxes have been criticizing House Speaker Newt Gingrich for saying teen smoking "has nothing to do with Joe Camel."

Gingrich said smoking in movies is a worse influence for the young. He quoted approvingly from a column by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who attacked that Hollywood trend and singled out Julia Roberts in "My Best Friend's Wedding" and "Titanic" star Leonardo DiCaprio, who puffed through "Romeo and Juliet."