From 1987 to 1990, R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. saw its share of Camel filter cigarettes jump from 2.7% to 3.1% -- some leap for an aging brand when U. S. cigarette sales are sinking. The No. 2 tobacco manufacturer resuscitated the brand largely through a four-year-old ad campaign featuring a cartoon character of its Camel mascot. Now, it's looking as if the extra market share may have come at a steep price.
Antismoking crusaders and health officials have repeatedly criticized the cartoon dromedary as an effort to target underage smokers. After long denying these charges, Reynolds now also must fend off dramatic new evidence published in the Dec. 11 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Assn. The journal reports that Old Joe Camel, as the character is called, entices kids to light up. The studies cited in JAMA no doubt will bring other tobacco companies into the debate, not to mention alcohol marketers who also have come under fire for ads that may appeal to kids.
DEAD PENGUIN? According to the studies published in JAMA, teenagers are far better able than adults to identify the Camel logo (table). One study even found that kids as young as three identify the cartoon with cigarettes. More chilling: One study concluded that Camel's share of the market of underage children who smoke is nearly 33% -- up from less than a percentage point before the Old Joe campaign got rolling. "We're hoping this information leads to a complete ban of cigarette advertising," says Dr. Joseph R. DiFranza, a University of Massachusetts Medical School researcher who worked on one of the studies.
Reynolds contests the studies' results. It cites a U. S. Office of Smoking & Health study issued this year that says 8% of kids ages 12 to 18 who smoke choose Camels. The average Camel smoker, Reynolds says, is 35. "Just because children can identify our logo doesn't mean they will use the product," a Reynolds spokeswoman says.
Reynolds isn't the only tobacco company under scrutiny. Last month, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., a division of BAT Industries PLC, began testing a cartoon penguin logo for its Kool brand. Brown & Williamson won't comment on the JAMA studies, but some antismoking activists believe the company will quietly drop the test campaign.
Advocacy groups expect that the Camel studies will also rekindle debate on alcohol advertising. "This information shows that it's clearly time for reform in both tobacco and alcohol advertising," says Patricia Taylor, director of the alcohol policies project for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Last month, U. S. Surgeon General Antonia Novello slammed alcohol ads that "appeal to youth on the basis of certain lifestyle appeals." On her hit list: the likes of Spuds MacKenzie, the "Party Animal" dog in Anheuser-Busch Cos.' Bud Light ads; sexual appeals; and scenes mixing booze with such risky activities as scuba diving and skiing. She called for a voluntary ban on campaigns that attract minors, but after a Dec. 11 meeting with chiefs of 10 alcohol marketers, Novello may have backed off a bit. A joint statement after the meeting stresses education against underage drinking and mentions no voluntaryrestrictions.
BUMPER STICKERS. But politicians are getting in their whacks, too. The Texas Attorney General's office, which waged a successful campaign against misleading food claims, is conducting its own probe of the effects of alcohol ads on minors. In Washington, staffers in the office of Representative Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) are talking about legislation that would severely restrict tobacco advertising. Waxman last year failed to get very far with a proposal to ban all photographs and illustrations in tobacco ads. "But that was before we had scientific studies that show the effect of ad-vertising on underage youth," says an aide.
Madison Avenue has taken notice -- defensively. Complains Hal Shoup, who is executive vice-president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies: "People interested in attacking the root causes of underage tobacco and alcohol use should find other solutions than trying to impose unconstitutional restrictions on advertising."
Reynolds is making every effort to counter the bad press. It recently distributed pamphlets and bumper stickers and put up billboards discouraging kids from smoking. For now, it has no plans to drop Joe Camel, saying the campaign is meant for adults. But even good intentions may pale next to hard evidence.