The idea seemed harmless enough. The marketing folks at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. had printed 20,000 bandannas and were getting ready to give them away at a motorcycle convention in Massachusetts. Just before the big day, a high-ranking Reynolds executive returned from a trip and ordered every bandanna burned. How come? They sported the notorious mug of Joe Camel, and Reynolds feared they would fuel charges that RJR was pushing cigarettes to kids. Lynn J. Beasley, senior vice-president for the Camel and Winston brands at Reynolds, remembers the episode with frustration. She sighs: "Some days you want to say, 'Let's get out of cigarettes. This is just too much work.'"
Joe Camel may be one troublesome dromedary, but the Winston-Salem (N.C.) subsidiary of RJR Nabisco Inc. isn't about to retire him to the oasis. Instead, the tobacco company has assumed an increasingly fierce defense of the cartoon camel, even as the federal government has increased its assault on Joe. The counterattack ranges from aggressive courtroom tactics to increased ad budgets to a carefully calculated appeal for commercial free speech (table). "I'll be damned if I'll pull the ads," vows James W. Johnston, chief executive of the tobacco division.
Joe may need all the lawyers and spin doctors he can get. Ever since the Journal of the American Medical Assn. (JAMA) accused Reynolds of using the spokescamel to hawk cigarettes to underage smokers in 1991, the advertising icon has looked as if it were headed for the endangered-species list. In a series of articles, JAMA charged that Joe was as well recognized by kids as Mickey Mouse, that the campaign was more effective in marketing to kids than to adults, and that Camels were the brand of choice among many children--charges that Reynolds contests.
COOKIE BOYCOTT. Joe came under fire again on Feb. 24, when Surgeon General M. Joycelyn Elders issued a report saying that the rate of smoking among teens has not changed over the past decade despite declining in the general population. Elders blamed the $4 billion a year spent on cigarette ads and promotions: "Smoking is made to look cool." Separately, sources say that in the next few weeks the Federal Trade Commission may take up a proposal that could force Reynolds to drop Joe. The commission has been stalemated on the proposal for several months. Meantime, the consumer-activist group INFACT is threatening a national boycott of RJR Nabisco's entire product line, which includes the likes of Oreo cookies and Planters nuts.
Instead of taking a low profile, however, Reynolds has been pushing the controversial campaign even harder. It boosted spending on Joe Camel ads in 1993, plunking down $37.5 million in the first 11 months of the year, 63% more than its budget for all of 1992, according to Competitive Media Reporting, a New York firm that tracks ad spending.
The money has not gone up in smoke. The company believes the six-year-old campaign saved the once dying brand. Camel's share of the U.S. cigarette market, which had fallen from 5% in 1982, has stabilized at about 4%, according to Wheat First Securities. "The Camel advertising does what we want it to do," says Johnston. "It is a campaign that has been noticed." With Reynolds' corporate parent saddled with $12.4 billion in debt, the company can ill afford to create a new campaign from scratch.
Small wonder, then, Reynolds has been going after Joe's critics. It has mounted a particularly aggressive attack on the JAMA articles. In pretrial discovery in a lawsuit filed in California Superior Court by a private attorney charging Reynolds with unlawful and unfair business practices in its marketing, Reynolds lawyers turned up evidence that they alleged showed Dr. Joseph R. DiFranza, a JAMA author, tinkered with questions and lumped together data to produce the most damaging results. In a letter to co-researchers, DiFranza, of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, wrote that responses to some questions appeared to show the Camel ads appeal more to people in their 20s than in their early teens. DiFranza says that Reynolds is misconstruing preliminary notes. "What they're doing is what the tobacco company always does: take things out of context to deceive people," he says.
Joe also has been getting some strenuous in-house grooming. Reynolds lawyers review all marketing and advertising. So does the media-relations staff, which tries to anticipate any public criticism of the campaign. An in-house ad-review panel of a dozen Reynolds nonmarketing employees must give the final thumbs-up on ads before they go to production.
The bandanna affair wasn't the first time the in-house censors struck. Beasley once envisioned putting Joe into in-line skates. The idea was supported by research on the popularity of the sport among adults. The legal staff overruled her because in-line skating is popular with kids, too. Also killed was a proposal for punk camels with pink hair. A golfer Joe was taken out of a T-shirt and put in a collared shirt to make him look older.
SMOKE SCREEN. Such self-censorship, Reynolds argues, is one thing. Quite another is the government attack on Joe, which the company charges is a smoke screen for a ban on all cigarette ads. "The agenda of the antismoking groups is to put us out of business," says Johnston.
And the fight rages on. Recently, Reynolds launched new ads showing Joe flanked by girl camels, provoking charges that the company is trying to lure young women to smoke. Meanwhile, Reynolds has signed actor Danny Glover to star in public-service ads to discourage underage smoking. On Feb. 21, Reynolds unveiled a new Roper poll it commissioned showing that 90% of kids aged 10 to 17 recognized such ad icons as the Energizer Bunny and the Keebler elves. Just 73% recognized Joe, who beat out only Borden's Elsie the Cow in the poll. And to know Joe isn't necessarily to love him--or his smokes. Just 3% of the kids who knew Joe said they liked cigarettes or that smoking was O.K. A majority said smoking was "gross" or bad for their health.
Reynolds' opponents are already picking apart the research. But that's the point. Reynolds is turning the fight over Joe Camel into a war of attrition. The longer it can keep the battle going, the longer Joe will be able to keep a light under the Camel brand's sales.
JOE PLAYS HARDBALL
R.J. Reynolds' strategy to defend the Joe Camel campaign:
EUNDERMINE the credibility of its opponents' research by attacking the methodology
EUNDERTAKE its own research on Joe Camel's popularity with kids to counter its opponents' findings
EUSE the courts to get notes and other inside information that could discredit its opponents' research
ESPIN publicity in its direction with a public-service campaign discouraging underage smoking
EBOOST ad spending for the Camel brand to $37.5 million, up 63% from 1992