The little box is black, sleek and shiny, with an elegant border of sophisticated teal or fuschia. On the shelf, it stands out. It’s chic, a little European, maybe a little “Sex and the City.”
Then there’s the name: Camel No. 9. Perhaps it makes you think of a famous fragrance with a similar title. But these, of course, are cigarettes, not perfume.
With the slogan “Light and Luscious,” the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco company launched its new cigarette in February, this one squarely aimed at women, with pretty magazine ads on thick, shiny paper and marketing evenings offering makeovers and free cigarettes.
It’s what advertisers do all the time, right? Target the market segments they covet? So why have some people been offended over the last few months by the pinks, the florals, the hints of lace even, in the Camel ads?
The answer depends on whom you think they’re targeting. Is it, as R.J. Reynolds contends, the established adult female smoker it seeks to lure from other brands? Or is it, as others argue, the teen, the college student or the young woman in her 20s, who hasn’t begun to smoke but is vulnerable to this message of sophisticated chic?
A number of voices have been raised in protest, but perhaps none so poignant as that of Lauren Terrazzano. A 39-year-old writer for Newsday, she came upon a Camel No. 9 ad while sitting in a doctor’s office. She was being treated for lung cancer; she told readers recently that doctors give her only a few months to live.
“The fact is, lung cancer is the No. 1 killer of women,” Terrazzano, who smoked on and off for about five years, wrote in a column last month.
“I wonder if a teenager or a 20-something woman reading the magazines has the will power to stay away from cigarettes, as she is simultaneously bombarded in neighboring pages with messages about being thin and how to lose fat.”
Yet Terrazzano acknowledged the issue is complicated — smoking is a matter of choice, she noted.
That’s what the company says, too. In fact, R.J. Reynolds, part of Reynolds American Inc., says women were “asking” for the new brand.
“We’ve been forthright from the beginning,” spokesman David Howard says. “We launched Camel No. 9 for women who were asking for a product that better reflected their taste preferences and style.”
Of an estimated 20 million female smokers out there, Howard says, 19.2 million smoke brands other than Camel, which has a traditionally masculine image. They want to change that.
And what about suggestions the company seeks to lure younger women into smoking? “We’re trying to connect with women adult smokers,” Howard says. “That is the only audience we’re interested in connecting with.”
The American Legacy Foundation, an anti-smoking group, calls that argument “an old chestnut.” The tobacco industry always seeks new smokers, it says, to replace those who die or manage to quit.
“And new smokers are teens and college students,” says Ellen Vargyas, counsel for the group, which was created in the wake of the 1998 settlement between the states and the tobacco industry.
Vargyas notes that 80 percent of new smokers are under the age of 18, and one-third of teenagers now smoking will eventually die from it. “No matter how you look at this, it’s extremely troubling,” Vargyas says of the Camel campaign.
This isn’t the first time R.J. Reynolds has been called to task for a perceived focus on young people. In 1997, the company finally dropped its Joe Camel cartoon character. For a decade, anti-smoking groups as well as the federal government had contended the character was meant to appeal to children.
It’s also hardly the first time cigarettes have been marketed to women. Virginia Slims, for example, was launched in 1968 with the famous self-empowerment slogan that targeted professional women: “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.” (Tobacco ads were banned from TV and radio starting in 1971.)
Marketing consultant Mary Lou Quinlan says the Camel No. 9 ads seem designed with younger women in mind — from the magazines they’re placed in to the visuals they use to that “No. 9,” with its air of exclusivity.
And the sleek black box, she says, looks just like a little black dress.
“All these things are signals of fashion, chic and luxury, which are triggers for younger women,” says Quinlan, founder of Just Ask a Woman, a firm that advises companies on marketing.
The 18-24 age group is especially vulnerable, Quinlan says, because it’s got a sense of immortality, coupled with an “it’s-a-tough-world-so-why-not” attitude. (They’re the same age group most likely to spend $500 on a pair of shoes when they can’t quite pay the rent.) Older women, by contrast, are more health-conscious, she says, and may have been touched by cancer in relatives or friends.
Yet there’s also the view that R.J. Reynolds is simply doing its job.
“I’m totally anti-smoking, but a marketer’s job is to market and a customer’s job is to decide what to buy,” says Marian Salzman, executive vice president at the J. Walter Thompson ad agency. “If the message breaks through, then the marketer has done a good job.”
Salzman adds that “niche marketing is the future, whether you’re targeting Mormons, Vietnam veterans or parents of 6 year olds. Anyone who has an issue with that isn’t living in 2007.”
Unlike some others, Salzman takes the tobacco companies at their word that they’re not targeting new smokers. “I think they’ve accepted their lot in life,” she says. “They’re aiming at the serious smoker who’ll switch, or the casual smoker who bums an occasional cigarette. I don’t detect a sinister angle here — I detect competitive role-playing.”
What’s clear is this: all the talk over the new Camel shows how tricky tobacco advertising has become in the 21st century. Now, Salzman notes, we know so much more just how bad cigarettes are. But so do young people, she says: “I don’t believe teenagers are vulnerable to cigarette ads anymore.”
Some would beg to differ, including Terrazzano, the Newsday writer. “The fact is,” she concluded in her column, “Joe Camel should take a hike. A very long one. In the desert.”