Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Camel Guy


He was a tall, rugged looking man with a blond afro and a ridiculously thick moustache. He wasn’t particularly handsome, like the various Marlboro Men were, but he wasn’t meant to be. A pretty boy would be counterproductive to what they were trying to accomplish. The Camel Guy was meant to be a role model of sorts, to appeal to young men who were looking for a means of reinforcing their masculinity. His independent nature and competence in the wilderness were a way of reaching those who were on the edge of their peer group, insecure in their masculinity, and seeking validation of their pride in being different from the crowd.

During the 1980’s, RJ Reynolds used an advertising campaign utilizing this character.  He was an adventurer, who travelled the world doing something or other, the purpose of which was never obvious. He never gave any indication that he had a job, but according to tobacco company documents, he was intended to come across as a photographer, archaeologist, or geologist. Looking over the various photographs, it seems to me that he was just an adventurer, an independently wealthy man with too much time on his hands who climbed a mountain, not because it was there, but just so he could smoke a cigarette on top of it.

The company was targeting young urban men, ages 18 to 34, middle class with moderate to liberal social values. They particularly had their eyes set on what the industry called FUBYAS, which stood for First Usual Brand Younger Adult Smoker. These guys were 18-20, and the industry knew that if they could get them started, they would be loyal to the brand for a very long time. Using Camel Guy to lure these guys in might seem unusual, considering his age at the time. He was around 50 years old during the campaign. The company had it figured out though, by using an individual who was somewhat older then their target audience, the admiration and willingness to emulate would be stronger. The whole mentoring angle became more direct during the later years of the campaign, which showed Camel Guy leading an expedition of younger men through the rough terrain; while teaching them how to smoke, apparently.

Intending for him to compete directly with Marlboro, they portrayed him as independent and usually alone. The Marlboro Men were conformers, who submitted to the rules of the group. Camel Guy lived by his own rules. The irony of seeking nonconformity through emulation is not lost, but this is human nature we’re talking about, and the market research team had compiled their report acknowledging the gullibility of the young and less educated.


The company tried to avoid having too close of an association between the model and the character, wanting to preserve his mystique, but also preserving the option of easy replacement. For that reason, they did not allow him to make personal appearances. When market share dropped, he did indeed get replaced, by a now notorious cartoon character named Joe. One thing the Camel Guy was never able to overcome was the view that he was a knock-off of the more successful Marlboro Man.

The real Camel Guy was an actor named Bob Beck. The job enabled him to travel around the world and certainly gave him a degree of financial security. He started off as a Marlboro Man, so peddling cigarettes were pretty much his life’s work. In his later years, he expressed regret about doing the advertising campaigns, claiming he wasn’t aware of the dangers involved with smoking. I’m not sure if I believe that, as the health risks were widely known by the 1980’s, but we can only imagine how difficult it would be for somebody of modest means to turn down a lucrative offer of an international campaign like that.

After Beck was let go, he retired to a place called Idyllwild, California. There, he devoted his time to community theatre, which included some Shakespeare; and to environmental causes. He and his wife founded some kind of nature preserve, called The O’Beck Garden, which I’m sure he hoped to leave as his legacy. Of course, his stint as the Camel Guy was so widely recognized, it has made him a minor legend of a vintage era. Copies of his ads, simply ripped out from old magazines, are available for sale on e-bay, some of them at surprisingly high prices.

Bob Beck died in 2008 of cancer, though it’s not clear if it was lung cancer or not. A photo taken later in his life showed him with the same thick moustache and wild hair, which by then had turned silver. He’s sporting a wide smile in that picture, something he rarely did as the Camel Guy. It just didn’t fit that macho image. I think the actor who played him was a much happier person then Camel Guy was, equally comfortable with the civilized world as he was with the natural one. That smile can symbolize to us that the image of the super masculine Camel Guy was just an illusion, one that no person could or should truly be. The image was as fictional as the idea that smoking is compatible with rock climbing.