The Life of Joe Camel: A Look Into the Ethical Concerns of Tobacco Advertising to Children and Adolescents

The tobacco industry is one of the most prominent industries in the United States economy yet at the same time it is one of the most controversial. It is without question that tobacco is detrimental to a person’s health.  Former United States General Antonia Novello is quoted saying, “it is safe to say that smoking represents the most extensively document cause of disease ever investigated in the history of biomedical research.” [1] The issue at hand, however, is not that it is harmful to person’s health, but rather the degree to which a known harmful substance can be advertised, more specifically, advertised to children and adolescents. In 1988 R.J. Reynolds, American’s second largest tobacco company behind Philip Morris, created a cartoon character mascot to help promote their Camel cigarette brand.[2] Joe Camel, as he was commonly known as, was a cool and suave anthropomorphic camel that endorsed smoking Camel cigarettes. Though this marketing campaign came under scrutiny after a 1991 report by the Journal of the America Medical Association was published citing that the Joe Camel campaign was directly targeted at children and adolescents and that it increased the rates of youth smoking.  Eventually, after years of controversy and outside pressure, R.J. Reynolds decided to pull the Joe Camel campaign in July of 1997. The question at hand, however, is: was R.J. Reynolds’ Joe Camel marketing campaign unethical? A closer look at ethical advertising principles as well as documents released from various lawsuits resulting from the Joe Camel campaign reveal that R.J. Reynolds did in fact run an unethical marketing campaign.

Who is Joe Camel?

            Joe Camel is the anthropomorphic camel created by R.J. Reynolds to help sell their Camel brand of cigarettes. Camel was looking for a new marketing campaign to celebrate the 75th anniversary of their Camel cigarettes. While looking through the company archives, they found Joe Camel, a cartoon mascot previously used in France. They decided to make Joe Camel the face of their campaign.  Below is just one example of the hundreds of different ads where Joe Camel is featured.


As shown in the advertisement above, Joe Camel is depicted as almost a James Bond like character. He is supposed to be the cool, handsome man that every man wants to be and every woman wants to be with except of course he is still a camel. In other advertisements, he is often times pictured around many women, and he always has his Camel cigarettes with him at all times. Joe Camel became so popular in the early 1990’s, that children recognized Joe Camel just as well as they recognized Mickey Mouse.[1]   Did this exposure to Joe Camel increase child and adolescent smoking? It’s hard to tell for certain, but most experts believe that the Joe Camel campaign had no effect of the rates of child and adolescent smoking.


Joe Camel’s Effects on Smoking Rates

            There is a popular notion that the Joe Camel campaign significantly increased the rate of child and adolescent smoking, mainly from the Journal of American Medical Association reports. Though, however, there is no evidence to support this theory. John E. Calfee did an analysis of market data of the tobacco industry during the time of the Joe Camel advertisements in The Journal of Public Policy & Marketing and no significant trends were found to relate Joe Camel with an increase child and adolescent smoking. In 1989, 8% of youths between the ages of 12-18 reported smoking Camel cigarettes. In 1998, 9.8% of youths between 12 and 18 years old reported smoking Camels.[2] So during the time of the Joe Camel campaign, there was little growth in the youth market share for Camel. Since the Joe Camel campaign lasted for almost 10 years, it is important to look at the smoking rates of young adults who may have been influenced by Joe Camel in their youth. Calfee found that Camel’s market share for ages 18-24 went from 3.3% in 1985 to 9.4% in 1995[3]. The full chart is pictured below.

Screen Shot 2013-11-19 at 2.16.02 PM

It is impossible to deny the effects Joe Camel had on the ages between 18-24. Many of the smokers in this group were exposed to Joe Camel during their teenage years when Joe Camel was first introduced in 1988. By 1996 many of these smokers have been exposed to Joe Camel for 8 years. As a pure advertising strategy, Joe Camel worked in targeting this market. The ethics of tobacco companies targeting this age group is another issue that I will discuss later.  However, this is only an increase in market share for Camel. It is not an increase in the amount of youth smokers, which the Joe Camel campaign is often accused of increasing. Joe Camel merely influenced adolescents to smoke Camels rather than another brand.

Critics of the Joe Camel campaign state the statistic that teenage smoking in the United States increased 7% between the years 1992 and 1995.[1]  While the statistic by itself is correct, Joe Camel cannot be linked as the direct cause of this increase. There were other unknown external factors in the environment that led to the increase in teenage smoking. Smoking rates among teenagers in Canada and the United Kingdom increased at the same rate as in the United States even though Joe Camel was not advertised in these countries. [2]  Even though it is proven that the Joe Camel campaign did not increase child and adolescent smoking rates, that does not let R.J. Reynolds off the hook for the unethical decisions made in running the campaign.


The Ethics of the Joe Camel Campaign

            Since the 1960’s, when the negative health effects of tobacco use became public, advertising for the industry became a controversial topic. Specifically, the advertising to children and adolescents has been the most heavily scrutinized and rightfully so as there is a high correlation between childhood smoking and long-term addiction. It is ethically corrupt for tobacco companies to target children and adolescents in their advertisements. R.J. Reynolds, in their Joe Camel Campaign, did exactly this. They established a cartoon mascot knowing that it will attract younger smokers to their Camel brand.

Simon Chapman discussed in his article in the British Medical Bulletin the ethical parameters of tobacco advertising. [3] These parameters can be more specifically used for advertising to children and adolescents as well as the Joe Camel marketing campaign.  One of the main proponents for all types of advertising is that advertising provides the consumer with information about a certain product. Classical economics believes that this information leads to efficiency in the market place. But what information about the product does Joe Camel advertisements provide its consumers?  They give essentially no information at all. This leads to the second parameter in which Joe Camel proves to be unethical. That is deception through omission. Although forced by law to put warning labels on their advertisements, the ads portrayed misleading aspects of cigarette smoking and conveniently left out many of the consequences. The main reason that the Joe Camel Campaign is unethical is children and adolescents are below the age of consent for purchasing and using tobacco products.[4] So by law, Joe Camel was illegal as well as unethical.

The Joe Camel campaign is unethical based on the claim that R.J. Reynolds produced it to attract younger smokers to the Camel brand. Camel vehemently denies this allegation. Though after two lawsuits, one by the state of California, internal documents reveal that the Joe Camel campaign was created to target the ages of 14 to 24.  In an internal R.J. Reynolds document that was released during one of the lawsuits quotes the Vice President of Marketing saying, “young adult market… represents tomorrow’s cigarette business. As this 14-24 age group matures, they will account for a key share of the total cigarette volume- for at least the next 25 years.”[5] Although, this quote does not specifically mention Joe Camel, it does suggest that advertising to the youth was an important part of R.J. Reynolds marketing campaign. Given that anthropomorphic cartoons are typically used for advertising to children and adolescents, it can be reasonably assumed that R.J. Reynolds’ intention of the Joe Camel campaign was to target children and adolescents.  Below is a picture that perfectly illustrates what R.J. Reynolds was trying to accomplish.

Joe Camel is arguably the most controversial tobacco advertising campaign of all time. There have been various reports and lawsuits that have resulted from this campaign and on its affects on child and adolescent smoking rates. While the campaign did not increase youth smoking rates, it did change youth smoking preferences to prefer the Camel brand as Camel’s market share of youth smokers increased dramatically over the 10 years that it ran. When analyzing the Joe Camel campaign based on ethical advertising principles and internal company documents that were released as a result of lawsuits, it is undoubtedly unethical.




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