Joe Camel is Innocent
Youth Smoking and the Unfair Indictment of Advertising.

By Wil Forbis
One of the big problems society is facing today is kids who smoke. This is obviously a problem of legitimate concern, since kids who smoke turn into adults who smoke who then turn into adults who die. And adults who die end up costing society lot of money via lost work hours and Federally subsidized hospital bills. So preventing teen smoking is an idea that makes a lot of sense.

The US Government has made numerous attempts at educating kids about the dangers of smoking and has had to ask the question, "Why do kids smoke?" To answer that, they've come up with a variety of answers. Kids have low self-esteem, kids inflict peer pressure on each other, kids desire acceptance. One reason that seems especially prevalent is the argument that kids are unduly influenced by tobacco commercials by the likes of Phillip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. And some even say that these advertisements are aimed at kids.

But is it fair to pick on advertising? Is cigarette advertising any different from other forms of advertising? Personally, I think cigarette advertisers are taking the brunt of the blame for a national habit that has many, many different causes. And I think if we take a look at the facts about smoking and the nature of cigarette advertising I can make my point.

Let's be honest here. We all know advertisers bend the truth to a degree; that's their job. Obviously advertisers are not going to show the negative sides of smoking, that would defeat their purpose. By the same token, a Suburu commercial is not going to show someone stuck on a deserted highway with a blown head gasket. It's the advertisers-job to show the sunny side of a product, and most intelligent people are aware there are bad sides.

Another recurring argument about kids and advertising seems to allude that they aren't intelligent people and that they too easily get snapped up in a snazzy promotional campaign. Well, I, for one, give kids a little more credit for intelligence than that. If anything, each new generation of seems to be getting more and more discerning and even cynical about Madison Avenue hype. They pick apart the half-truths of commercials with the same skill they explain the special effects in movies. They also live in a culture that bombards them with the message that tobacco IS harmful. Granted, it may be somewhat hypocritical to have a teacher tell you that smoking is wrong, then see that teacher in the parking lot later on, taking a drag, but the message is loud and clear: SMOKING IS BAD! What do we have to do, spell it out for them?

Well, it so happens we do. Right there on the box. It's called the Surgeon General's Warning, and cigarette companies are mandated by law to put that warning on their product. They are required to state, on their own package, that smoking is bad. I don't know how much clearer you can get.

A group of advertisements that caught a lot of attention recently, were the "Joe Camel" ads. They were based on a suave, walking camel who strutted around with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, looking "cool". The argument seemed to be that Joe was designed to appeal to kids on the basis that he was a "funny animal" (like Garfield) and kids like "funny animals."

Now, I see several things wrong with this theory. For one, I think one of the reasons kids smoke is that they see adults smoke. Kids want to be like adults. Adults are not particularly into "funny animals". Therefore, I believe kids who smoke, who want to be "mature" or "adult," are really going to be turned off by funny animals. Imagine if a "Snoopy" cigarette hit the market. Can you really imagine the local toughs hanging around on the street corner, smoking their "Snoopy" unfiltereds?

Another interesting allegation was that within the Joe Camel ads existed a phallic symbol, specifically Joe Camel's nose. Though we live in a society that claims to have moved beyond the primitive tenets of psychoanalysis, we sure see a lot of phallic symbols. I have two problems here. For one, hey, camel noses DO sort of look like penises. Is that any more phallic than an ice cream cone? Point two: let's examine the steps the mind must take for subliminal camel-nose penises to be an effective advertising ploy. 1. Joe Camel has a penis for a nose. 2. Joe Camel puts cigarettes in his penis-nose. 3. I would like to put the same brand of cigarettes Joe puts in his penis-nose, into my mouth... Now, I'm no Sigmund Freud but isn't this all starting to sound rather silly?

To me, the Joe Camel ads always seemed aimed at twenty to thirtysomething males. Clearly, Joe himself, the hero of the ads, is a roughly thirtyfive year old camel-man. And Joe seems to surround himself with things that have great appeal to twenty to thirtysomething males, i.e. Harley Davidsons, classic rock, and pool halls; iconography more concurrent with the 60's generation than Generation X. If Joe Camel rode a skateboard and listened to alternative music, these accusations might have some validity.

"Okay, wise guy," you're saying. "If it ain't advertising, then why do kids smoke?" Well, for one thing, the billions of dollars a year tobacco companies spend a year on advertising is nothing next to the gazillions of free advertising cigarettes have gotten over the past two hundred years from literature, film, T.V. and music. What do Huck Finn, Phillip Marlowe, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Lucille Ball, Don Johnson and John Lennon all have in common? Smokers, every one of them (plus several of them died of cancer). And these aren't trash culture characters either, they are devoutly revered American icons (well, maybe not Don Johnson). Heck, even Marilyn Monroe demurely puffed a cig in "The Concrete Jungle." The truth is that the Marlboro Man will never be as "cool" as Bogart in "Casablanca." Joe Camel will never be as astute as "Columbo's" cigar smoking Peter Falk.

Where else do kids see cigarettes? In everyday life. Parents, relatives, teachers, policemen... they all smoke. You can tell kids "smoking is bad" until you're blue in the face, but they're bound to ask "Then why are all these people around me doing it? Why do they ENJOY doing it?" If kids spend a lot of time around cigarettes then one day they're probably going to pick one up. Being in close proximity to cigarettes is more of a temptation than any ad.

Let's take a look at the issue of drugs. Let's look at pot, heroin, cocaine. Drugs, we are told, are an epidemic. For the past thirty years we've been engaged in a "drug war". Kids, adults, senior citizens, all use drugs, Even though DRUGS HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO ADVERTISING. No one is saying drugs are cool (except Hollywood). Cocaine dealers cannot take out ads in Rolling Stone or Time. Yet, somehow drug dealers survive, even flourish, despite the fact that they have no advertising and, even worse, are illegal.

There's another drug we should look at. A legal drug. Alcohol. Drunk driving is the leading killer of youth. But hardly anyone is making a fuss about beer ads, no one accuses them of corrupting youth. Why? Well, it's a safe bet that most of the people complaining about cigarette ads don't smoke. But, it is likely they drink, as a majority of people in this country do. Basically, these folks are all for condemning people's filthy habits until you get around to their filthy habits. Then you start to hear cries of "oppression" or "prohibition".

I'll be honest here. Tobacco companies probably DO want kids to smoke. At least if they want to stay in business. But do they overtly aim their ads at children? I don't think so, and no barrage of funny animals and camel penises is going to make me think otherwise.

Now, I'm certainly not saying kids should smoke. As it is well known, smoking leads to death. I consider it a point 'in my favor that I don't smoke. But blaming the advertisers for kids smoking is not going to solve the problem. The promotion of smoking is something deeply routed in this society. If it is to stop, individuals are going to have to take RESPONSIBILITY (something Americans have increasing difficulty with). Parents will have to end their habit so their kids don't start it. The tolerance for kids smoking (an illegal act) must be abated. The battle to keep kids from smoking must be fought one cigarette, one mouth at a time. But isn't it so much easier to blame the faceless droogs of cooperate America? Or is that, if I may say it, a "smokescreen" for the real problem?

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