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Where Have You Gone, Joe Camel?

Return to their roots on those big, beautiful billboards

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Once A Week, But Never Weakly

Where Have You Gone, Joe Camel?

by Nick Coston, U.S. Sales Director, The Neuron; Industry Scribe

I’ve never smoked cigarettes, but I thought growing up the people who did smoke were really cool. I still do. The way they popped that heater out of the freshly opened pack, lit it with an old silver, butane lighter, and blew that first big puff thru their nose. Now, I thought was cool. Admen, writers, movie stars, my high school baseball coach, they all lit up. That unmistakable aroma of torched Turkish Tobacco along with a freshly shaved face, splashed with cup of Aqua Velva for good measure, is seared into my aging memory. The Marlboro Man, The Camel, The Virginia Slim women with shapely legs over 4 feet long, all were celebrities of my youth.

Frank Sinatra smoked. Dean Martin smoked. Joan Crawford smoked. My Mom even smoked. If just to get away from my brother and I for 5 minutes.

Smoking was glam. It was cool. It was the in thing to do. All smokers dressed the part. Men in crisp suits, women in sleek dresses. It was all great theatre. And it was all on billboards. Bigger than life, baby.

The Dean

Except for one thing. Smoke enough of them and it kills you. Or makes you really sick and ruins your life and usually the life of those around you. Stinks up your clothes. So away went cig print ads, billboards, TV commercials. Gone was all that glamour, all that sex appeal, all that coolness. Replaced by ads for testosterone supplements, women’s hygiene, and bloating. Gone is all that incredible ad copy that we saw while driving the interstates, replaced by lawyers, car insurance companies and hospitals. And bloating.

Not that there’s anything wrong with personal injury lawyers, car insurance companies with lizards and emus, and hospitals that tell you their ER wait times. They all provide important services, they spend millions, they all fill space and keep OOH and DOOH companies in business. 

But they are so damn unsexy. OOH copy has become a glorified infomercial, in fact they are flat out boring. For kids sitting in the back of their parents SUVs, when their cell phone batteries die and they have to actually look out the windows for entertainment, most of what they see are services. Health, financial, legal. OK, there are some colorful fast food and pizza spots, but generally speaking look at the top 10 advertisers currently for OOH. They all spell the same word, DULL.

Fortunately, our industry has used technology to bring back much of the glory days of our former colorful copy. Only it’s not on flat, static billboards. They’re on big  beautiful displays in Times Square, higher res digital units, some that even talk to you. Little movies play on screens at gas stations . They aren’t everywhere yet, but they’re getting there. Art directors are starting to have some real fun once again, not bogged down by laws and regulations prohibiting certain products.

Can’t advertise tobacco? Enjoy some cannabis or vape copy. No more chewing tobacco ads? Plenty of Viagra type drug copy out there to entertain the kiddies. We’ve replaced harmful habits with products that have harmful side effects. You say tomato, I say tomaaato. We’ve also traded humor and entertainment for medicinal products.

But I know times have changed. Thank goodness people don’t smoke like they used to, we’ve wised up. It’s not illegal, yet, to smoke, But to many it’s become a dirty habit. Gone are the days when in high school if I was on the bench during a baseball game, which was most of the time, I sat next to our Coach. Warren Jones was his name, and he was well known Illinois high school coach. And the most vivid memory I have of sitting next to Coach Jones, more memorable than learning about the game, was enjoying those Camel no-filter cigs he would light up on the bench. That’s right, my high school Coach was cool, just like Joe Camel. Combine that with the aroma of some Mennen Skin Bracer After Shave, well, I was living in my own billboard ad.

While it’s a good thing that cigarettes have disappeared, it’s definitely a bad thing all that awesome creative is gone. Imagine the fun those art directors had coming up with  smoking camels, smoking cowboys, smoking hot women in lingerie taking drags off long skinny cigs. I doubt they have much fun designing ads for mesothelioma claims or hair plugs. Ok, maybe hair plugs. But much of our copy has become grim. “Hey, you’re sick, call this number”.

I swear, nobody is having fun on billboards anymore. Except Brian Urlacher. Oh, look it up, it’s great copy.

I propose that we go back to the copy of the 60’s and 70’s. Of course certain products are excluded but why not have more fun? Why not be more entertaining? Make your copy OBIE worthy. They can do it on all sizes of digital screens. Return to their roots on those big, beautiful billboards.

We’d have a lot more yucks at Obie Award Shows. Who knows, maybe I’ll meet you outside afterwards for a quick drag. We’d be so cool.


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