FTC votes to send Joe Camel packing
WASHINGTON, D.C.–The Federal Trade Commission in late May formally charged R.J. Reynolds with violations of fair trade laws by targeting youth too young to legally smoke with its “Joe Camel” advertising campaign.
If found liable under the civil indictment, the company’s cartoon character could be banned from billboards, magazine advertising, t- shirts, caps and towels. The nation’s second largest cigarette maker would only be able to use the logo in restricted places like bars and nightclubs.
In a 3-2 vote, the FTC reversed a 1994 recommendation that had said the company was not violating federal law and the claims should not be pursued. But company records recently turned over to the FTC, showing Camel cigarettes’ popularity and the campaign’s effectiveness with youth, changed the commission’s opinion.
The case will be heard as early as June 24 by an administrative law judge who will determine if the campaign was misleading or unlawful, causing substantial and ongoing injury.
The reversal comes after 66 congressmen asked the FTC to review the company again and President Bill Clinton chastised R.J. Reynolds for conducting a marketing campaign that appealed to children.
The tobacco company’s vow to contest the charges on First Amendment grounds occurs at the same time that many other companies have declared their willingness to negotiate restrictions of advertising, including use of cartoon characters, with the hope of winning immunity from numerous state lawsuits aimed at recouping health care costs incurred from smoking-related illnesses.
In a 1994 congressional hearing on the earlier FTC complaint, R.J. Reynolds chief executive officer James Johnston said he would pull the campaign if he thought it would cause young people to smoke. At the hearing, Johnston compared Joe Camel to Snoopy selling Met Life insurance and Garfield promoting Embassy Suites Hotels, saying neither character was accused of selling to children.
The FTC said it may also pursue similar charges against other tobacco companies, and will examine television advertisements for beer and wine for their appeal to young viewers. (FTC Administrative Complaint, Docket No. 9285)