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Sunday, February 04, 2007

RJ Reynolds’ Joe Camel campaign

RJ Reynolds’ attempt to create smokeless cigarettes (see Chapter 3) was not the tobacco company’s only brand failure. In the 1990s, RJR got into big trouble over one of its campaigns to promote its leading brand of cigarettes, Camel. The campaign featured a character called Joe Camel, a cartoon camel who wore trendy clothes and sunglasses and who had a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

In 1991 the company was publicly charged in the Journal of the American Medical Association with targeting children through the Joe Camel character.

That same year, the company got into further trouble when Janet Mangini, a San Francisco family lawyer, filed a lawsuit against the company. In doing this, she became the first person to legally challenge the tobacco industry for targeting children with its advertising.

However, the Joe Camel campaign survived until 1997, when various Californian local authorities intervened and came to Janet Mangini’s aid. A trial date was set for December 1997. In preparation for the trial, the prosecuting lawyers discovered that RJR had researched the reasons why people start smoking and the smoking patterns of children. The lawsuit charged that as a result of this secret research, the tobacco giant developed advertising and promotional campaigns aimed directly at children, encouraging them to smoke Camel cigarettes.

As the trial approached, RJR asked whether the Mangini lawsuit could be resolved ‘if the campaign was pulled.’ However, in order to avoid court, RJR also had to make sure that the previously confidential internal documents regarding youth marketing and the Joe Camel campaign were made public.

When the settlement was resolved, RJR stated that the ‘Mangini action [. . .] was an early significant and unique driver of the overall legal and social controversy regarding underage smoking that led to the decision to phase out the Joe Camel campaign.’

However, as the RJR documents are still available on the Web, the negative PR damage has been a little more difficult to erase. As Stanton Glantz of UCSF University, which manages the online resource where the documents are kept, points out, ‘the RJR information is very easy for the public to address. In contrast to recent releases of documents by the tobacco industry and the House Commerce Committee on the web, the Mangini documents are in a form that facilitates downloading them and understanding what they mean.’

In other words, this time the unpleasant taste wasn’t left by the cigarette itself.

Lesson from Joe Camel

  • Youth marketing is a sensitive area. Obviously any cigarette or alcohol manufacturer caught trying to push its product to children is in breach of the law. However, all companies need to tread carefully when it comes to youth marketing. For instance, in the UK brands such as Walkers and Tesco’s have come under fire for trying to push their brand names through school-based campaigns.
  • Also, it is important to remember that just because children have an interest in something, it doesn’t mean that this is the way to reach them. For example, just because many children are interested in the occult (over 50 per cent according to one MORI poll), it clearly doesn’t mean that marketers should fuel this interest.


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