NINETY percent of 6-year-olds know Old Joe Camel, according to a new medical study - nearly as high as the recognition rate of Mickey Mouse. If you don't know Old Joe, you're probably an adult.
Old Joe is the cartoon character used to pitch Camel cigarettes, and it's hitting a specific audience - children. RJR Reynolds, the maker of Camels, spent $100 million in 1990 on advertising and promotional products. It says it has no intention of marketing its product to youngsters, but the results of surveys published in the latest Journal of the American Medical Association tell otherwise.
Nearly 100 percent of teenagers between 12 and 19 recognized the Camel cartoon, compared to only two-thirds of adults. Since 1988, when Old Joe became the centerpiece of a massive advertising campaign, Camel has gone from .5 percent to 33 percent of the under-18 market.
Cartoony neon colors attract teenagers' attention. Promotional giveaways of T-shirts, baseball caps, watches and posters, all with Old Joe's face, are things kids want. They get those things with coupons from Camel packs. (Other brands are working the same angle. The Kool penguin is donning sunglasses and neon sneakers.)
It's no mystery why RJR has to build brand loyalty early. About a million smokers quit or die in the United States each year, forcing tobacco companies to recruit new smokers constantly. Since research shows 90 percent of smokers pick up the habit before the age of 18, advertisers must win youngsters.
While the cigarette companies battle for teens, state and federal governments are spending millions a year on anti-smoking programs. But those millions don't come close to matching the advertising budget of just one brand.
RJR says it is beginning a campaign to persuade youngsters not to smoke and to urge retailers not to sell cigarettes to children. A few public-service messages won't balance out the ubiquitous Camel ads. RJR, meanwhile, has no intention of dropping an ad campaign that targets young lungs so effectively.