Joe Camel in a 'cool' pose.


Original Medium: Corporate spokestoon
Speaking for: Camel Cigarettes
First Appeared: 1974
Creator: Billy Coulton
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There is a tendency, on the part of people who don't know any better, to equate the cartoon form of a commercial property with an intent to reach children with it. It's easy for people who don't look very hard to get that impression — it's certainly true in the case of most mainstream comic books, such as Spider-Man, and magazine features like Goofus & Gallant. But it's necessary for holders of …

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… that point of view to make themselves blind to things like Little Annie Fanny and the fact that most newspaper editorial cartoons are aimed over kids' heads. The belief may be absurd, but it's caused a certain amount of trouble for the owners of characters like Cherry Poptart and Omaha the Cat Dancer. It had a much greater effect on Joe Camel.

Joe was an advertising toon, like Cap'n Crunch for kids or Reddy Kilowatt for grown-ups. Joe touted Camel Cigarettes for the owner of the brand, The R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, but only in print — cigarette advertising had long-since been banned from American television by 1988, when he reached these shores, so there wasn't any question of using such a kid-accessible medium to reach his supposed audience. He didn't appear in any kid-specific magazines, either. It could have been different. In 1951, Willie the Kool Penguin was actually licensed for use in a mainstream children's comic book.

He did, however, reach children, at least according to a study published by The American Medical Association, showing he was more recognizable among toddlers than Mickey Mouse or Fred Flintstone. Which is less conclusive than it might be, considering the history of attempts to put pressure on advertisers is replete with scientific studies, and they all seem to favor the point of view of either the party bringing the pressure, or the advertiser itself. A case in point is the Frito Bandito controversy, in which scientific opinion on whether Mexican-Americans did or did not feel insulted by the character depended on which side sponsored a given study. If one rejects the notion that medicine has an agenda that favors the discomfiture of the tobacco industry, there's the fact that the study was used in support of a San Francisco attorney's 1991 lawsuit to forbid use of, specifically, Joe Camel.

In a way, there was a grain of truth in anti-Joe claims, in that Joe was intended to reach a younger demographic than had hitherto been reached by Camels' advertising — just not that young. The company claimed that with Joe, as always, the attempted audience was adults. The original impetus for adopting Joe was a belief on the advertiser's part that Camels had come to be perceived as a cigarette for "old folks".

Joe was designed in 1974 by British commercial artist Billy Coulton, and used in advertising throughout Europe. He was a funny animal version of "Old Joe", the (realistically-drawn) camel that had appeared on the package since the brand's introduction in 1913. He came to America in 1988, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of that introduction.

Joe was seen as sort of a version of another company's "Marlboro Man" campaign, where smoking the brand in question was equated in advertising with macho, manly, "cool" pursuits. Joe could be depicted as a pool player, a racecar driver, a Foreign Legionnaire or anything else that might give an impression that smoking Camels was something a "cool" person might do.

But no more. In 1992, Reynolds caved to pressure and stopped using Joe Camel.


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Text ©2010 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Reynolds Tobacco Company.