Shooting Pool With Joe Camel

And where he stands between Marlboro and Mayakovsky.

Joe stacks up the chips

Mr. Joseph Camel, the cartoon tobacco mascot, is currently facing charges by the feds that he has knowingly and with profit aforethought enticed children to smoke cigarettes. He is not accused of hooking kids in the manner of a playground pusher, however–he’s never directly addressed children or been seen in their company. Rather, Mr. Camel, himself a habitual user of nicotine, has been accused of being way too cool, in much the way that Joseph K. was once accused by the authorities of being way too guilty. The very president of the United States has put the case in these terms–Joe Camel, declares Bill Clinton, tells minors that “smoking is cool.”

Now, this is a charge of considerable interest. For it to stick, “cool” must be perceived to be good, or else associating it with smoking wouldn’t be so dangerous that the ads have to be banned. And Joe Camel must make smoking seem cool because of the life he leads, as suggested in the ads that feature him. So what does he do in these ads? Among other things, he plays in a blues band, shoots pool with his buddy camels, rides a big hoggish motorcycle (without a helmet), drives a flashy convertible (without fastening his seat belt), and otherwise does a whole lot of hanging out in graphically interesting settings. Mr. Camel is never seen doing any productive work of any kind, is never portrayed wearing bourgeois clothing of even the Casual Friday variety (he usually wears a leather jacket), and is never seen in the company of middle-class camels who have to work for a living.

In short, Joe Camel is not respectable. He is–to use the language of cultural authoritarians–an unproductive social parasite who lives for his own pleasure. He stays up all night in unwholesome places, indulges in risky behavior that threatens to make decent camels’ insurance premiums go up, and surely hasn’t phoned his aged mother in years. And that isn’t the worst of it. Joe is also a sexually charged throwback with predatory sensibilities, notorious for his lack of sensitivity to females. It is obvious that he would be unwilling to negotiate the stages of a sexual encounter as an equal. Even his face has a phallic quality. Indeed, given the ubiquitous social messages of what now constitutes enlightened masculinity (a nurturing, sensitive, cholesterol-free character, etc.), it would be interesting to know why Joe Camel is not perceived by youth as a criminal rather than, as the Federal Trade Commission’s would-be censors insist is the case, as a model.

But, advertising being in large measure fantasy anyway, let’s you and I make Joe over. Let’s say we subject him to behavior modification of the Clockwork Orange sort, putting him through some Pavlovian ordeal that takes the devil out of him. (Or is it Elvis we’re taking out of him? Or Brando’s The Wild One? Or Kerouac? Or the dromedary version of Mailer’s beat-era White Negro?) Let’s give Joe a job, a sense of responsibility, a life of achievement, and a capacity for being a loving husband and a sacrificing father. And, oh yeah, let’s put a smoke in his mouth.

You don’t think a pitch like this will sell cigarettes? Think again. It sells more cigarettes than a lowlife like Joe Camel does (including to juveniles). An association with respectability has been the central image of alcohol and tobacco advertising for much of the century. From Dewar’s Profiles to Miller Time, a drink or a smoke has more often than not been portrayed as a reward for hard work, an indulgence that the achieving bourgeoisie earns the right to allow itself.

For years, hundreds and maybe thousands of smokers in cigarette ads have been lighting up at picnics, on hiking trails, or on horseback. Yet the first commercial smoker to get hauled into court is the first one to have stepped into a pool hall, to have shrugged off respectability. While the FTC is not consciously playing the prude here, there is a logic to cultural control to which regulators are heir.

Joe Camel’s character probably doesn’t appeal to “children,” but it may well appeal to adolescents by exploiting their sexual and social insecurities. The campaign allows teen-agers to appropriate some inexpensive American Cool, an emotional style that developed in the wake of World War I along with mass cigarette smoking. In fact, in the nine years that the campaign has been running, Camel’s share of the underage smoking market has gone up.

But the majority of underage smokers don’t smoke Camels–they reportedly smoke Marlboros. And if the only issue involved in attempting to ban a cigarette-advertising symbol were its effect on kids, then the obvious culprit to focus on would be the Marlboro cowboy. But he’s not sitting in court; he’s out riding the range, perhaps roping in kids when they really are kids. (Perhaps not: What any ads have to do with the decision to start smoking is not known.)

Playing darts

Of course, Joe Camel is a “cartoon” figure and, to a certain set of mind, ipso facto directed at little kids. In fact, the campaign’s graphic style, characters, and situations are directed at an older audience, whereas the appeal of cowboys to little kids is too well known to argue about.

You couldn’t invent a more striking contrast of characters than exists between Camel’s downtown urban punk and Marlboro’s mythically respectable horseman. This long-running campaign (which has helped the brand become the world’s most popular) portrays a disciplined man of experience who seems to embody a cowboy code of honor, a traditional regard for women, and the offer of a self-sacrificing friendship with other males who can meet his standards of what it is to be a man. (Want his respect? Buy a pack.) Perhaps he’s next on the FTC’s hit list. That he’d be in line behind Joe Camel is a lesson in cultural acceptability.

Anyway, if Joe Camel hasn’t much in common with Marlboro’s John Wayne West, he has plenty in common with a literary creation who is becoming more relevant every day. That figure is the protagonist of the once-famous play, The Bedbug by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Russia’s great futurist poet and Bolshevik propagandist. In 1929, disillusioned by the revolution, Mayakovsky wrote a protest play about the growing repressiveness of the regime. He imagined himself frozen through 50 years of authoritarianism, awakening in 1979 into a risk-free world where people of his temperament were no longer allowed to exist.

What he emphasized about himself were his bad habits: his desire to carouse the night away, to run around with women, to sing loudly and drunkenly, and to smoke his head off. The sum of these unholy things, Mayakovsky suggests, is the feeding of his soul, the making of his poetry. “Why did we shed our blood,” he asks an uncomprehending scientific Puritan, “if I can’t dance to my heart’s content?”

In the end, Mayakovsky is stuck in a kind of zoo, where curious people come to watch him do unhealthy things. “Look,” says the zoo’s director, “it’s now going to have what they called ‘a smoke.’ ” Comes a voice from the crowd: “Oh! How horrible!” And another cry, “The children! Remove the children!”

It would be culturally blasphemous to draw too close a parallel between an advertising symbol like Joe Camel and a tragic figure like Mayakovsky, who shot himself the year after he wrote his drama about the interplay of freedom, pleasure, and risk. On the other hand, the horrified cries of Mayakovsky’s authoritarians will be ringing in Joe Camel’s ears as he roars out of town for the last time on his big motorcycle. Because he still won’t be wearing a helmet.

Flipping out