Joe Camel

Joe Camel: From cool to out in the cold.

Washington legislators can’t agree on much of anything anymore when it means crossing party lines, but they do seem to find common ground on one thing. That’s right, something has to be done about Facebook. A Senate Subcommittee heard testimony this week from a Facebook insider who was part of a “misinformation team” intent on stealing the hearts and minds of our youth — and, undoubtedly, a whole bunch of gullible adults. The result has often meant irreparable damage to the lives of millions of adolescents before they even get started as adults. Facebook’s ongoing sin, reported whistleblower Frances Haugen, was, according to a New York Times report, the social media powerhouse “had purposely hidden disturbing research about how teenagers felt worse about themselves after using its products and how it was willing to use hateful content on its site to keep users coming back.”

Perhaps the initial reaction of many of us supposedly well-adjusted adults was, “Grow up! Get some self-esteem!”  Then again, I have no idea what is like to be young, addicted to social media and dependent on peer acceptance.

They’re calling it a “big tobacco moment,” a comparison to the decline of tobacco, particularly cigarettes, and notably the banning of advertising these products on radio and television in 1970. The Surgeon General’s warning on packs of cigarettes preceded the ban on big tobacco by five years. The romanticized Marlboro Man, virile, hardy and riding high in the saddle in “Marlboro Country,” was one of the casualties, as was Wayne McLaren, the actor who portrayed him. McLaren contracted lung cancer and died about twenty years after the last of his Marlboro ads.

But it was the concern about the impact of this massive enticement of children that most closely resembles these recent charges against Facebook and Instagram: “I’m here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy,” Haugen, testified. “The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes.”

And who was the villain luring children to smoking during the tobacco wars? That distinction goes to a cartoon character, Joe Camel, whose message was clearly directed at kids. Joe Camel was cool, and that made smoking cool to adolescents and children. Many lifetime smokers during the golden age of the consumption of what came to be known as “cancer sticks” had indeed picked up the habit in high school, even elementary school. As late as 1991, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded in a study that Joe Camel was as recognizable among six-year-olds as Mickey Mouse. This was too much even for the staid old members of Congress, and they applied pressure to deep six Joe Camel from all advertising. The sad part is that this took more than three decades after the Surgeon General’s warning for this to happen. I guess it sometimes it takes a few decades for Congress to figure out what’s going on.

Joe Camel, despite his popularity in his early years as product spokesman, can now be classified as the most hated brand mascot, human or cartoon, of all time. The Marlboro Man gets a reprieve from this distinction because the man who portrayed him went to his grave as an anti-smoking campaigner, lending a photo of his emaciated figure on his death bed as a side-by-side comparison of him at his macho peak as the Marlboro Man exhaling a plume of smoke.

Now Facebook hasn’t really relied on a brand mascot to achieve its airy heights, although I’ve learned that Zuckerberg and company have flirted with a few lovable characters over the past decade, including a blue hedgehog, a cute little horse named “Pokey” (Gumby not included, damn it!) and a face that was said to look remarkably like Al Pacino.

But it got me thinking about other brand mascots regarded as controversial, though not necessarily dangerous as Joe Camel turned out to be. I also include offensive and creepy among my qualifications for making this abbreviated list.

Budweiser’s Spuds MacKenzie, a bull terrier, was another corporate mascot some accused  of marketing an addictive product to kids. Spuds even drew the ire of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) who saw him as complicit in engendering the growing number of underage drivers under the influence who were dangerous to themselves and others. To me, he seemed to belong in the creepy category. He was often surrounded by scantily clad women seeming enamored with a dog. Woof! What was the message? Give your dog a Bud, and you’ll never be at a loss for women? The tenure of Spuds as Budweiser’s brand mascot was brief but memorable.

Tobacco and alcohol use among children may have been a detriment to the legacies of Joe Camel and Spuds MacKenzie, but what about purveyors of unhealthy fast food? Nobody did it better than Ronald McDonald, who still lives on in our memories. He has not been featured in commercials for a few years, but we can chalk up his semi-demise to the emergence of the creepy clown, Pennywise, Stephen King’s scary grinner in “It”; serial killer John Wayne Gacey, and even the most recent incarnation of the Joker. Yes, Ronald McDonald, the lovable clown originally portrayed by jovial TV weatherman Willard Scott, was suddenly scaring the hell out of little kids.

In closing, let’s look at a few of the most hated brand mascots, according to a poll conducted a few years ago by Business Week, which proclaimed “there are fewer brand mascots that we like than we dislike.”

Chuck E. Cheese, not surprisingly, is high on the list of the most hated. He is a rat, after all, and one with a middle initial at that. It seems that adults, probably parents, were the real haters of this character, but not the kids who begged, whined and wailed to go to Chuck E. Cheese’s several times a week.

The Burger King, by the way, reigns as the most disliked in this poll. Again, this character is more creepy than offensive. This is not the original Burger King created in 1955 as a cartoon character. They’re talking about the one most of us know who has held dominion over this realm of burgers and fries and pretenders to the McDonald’s throne. His royal heinous looks like a cheap department store dummy with a wig, beard and crown who never blinks and would scare the bejeebers out of you if you woke up one morning and he was leaning over your bed. Relax. That’s probably not going to happen, because his unpopularity has proven to be his undoing and all vestiges of him have been removed from the corporate website.

Dominos character, the Noid, another among the most hated, seems obsessed with stopping the delivery of Dominos Pizza. This is apparently reverse psychology, but it doesn’t seem to have worked. The Noid’s appearances were pulled back, but he made a comeback as a video game character on, where else, Facebook.

There are apparently a lot of people who really dislike Mucinex’s Mr. Mucus. It’s tough being characterized as a cruddy mound of mucus, one of the least desirable human secretions. The worst part about him, poll respondents stated, is his rudeness. Personally, I’m a fan of this slimy glob of phlegm, and I would put him near the top of my list of the best brand mascots. Mucinex seems to feel the same way, because Mr. Mucus is still on the job as the product’s fall guy.

As I read through my thoughts today, I realize what a strange and winding trip I’ve been on here: from social media to mucus. Then again, they’re not all that far apart.