A Bull, A Camel, and A Marketing Revolution

Long before there was Ronald McDonald, or the Geico gecko, or the Gerber baby, there were, well, just companies selling things. Back in the ancient days of advertising, all a company had to promote itself was its own good name and the reputation of its product. But leave it to big tobacco to innovate in the world of sales. Thanks to the heavy hitters of the North Carolina tobacco industry - men like R.J. Reynolds and Julian Carr - "branding" was born, in the shape of the Durham Bull and Joe Camel. In our current Single-Owner Advertising and Americana Auction we are offering early examples of advertising by the North Carolina tobacco companies that were pioneers in international marketing.


By the end of the 19th century the American tobacco industry was flourishing. When Julian Shakespeare Carr became a partner in the Bull Durham tobacco company, he was joining a crowded field. Civil War veterans who acquired a taste for southern tobacco during the war drove demand for it afterwards, and made it lucrative for tobacco companies in the Southeast to clearly identify their geography. Carr saw this as an opportunity - he already had his location right in the name of his product. The Bull Durham name and logo were created by Carr's predecessor, John Green, who lifted the iconic bull from the label of a mustard that he mistakenly thought was made in Durham, England. All Carr had to do was saturate the world with his bull to make his brand synonymous with the quality of North Carolina tobacco. So Carr hired teams of painters all over the country, and eventually the world, to paint huge mural-sized advertisements for his tobacco, always prominently featuring the bull. He introduced coupons, rewards programs, and collector's cards, incentivizing brand loyalty. He advertised prolifically in print. Thanks to Carr's aggressive efforts, Bull Durham became one of the very first internationally recognized brands. There is even a popular (though possibly apocryphal) story of the Durham bull being painted on the Great Pyramids in Egypt. The bull became a visual shorthand for the quality tobacco that the world already associated with the Southeast.


Where Julian Carr's challenge had been to distinguish his product from the crowded field of loose tobacco, with Camel cigarettes R.J. Reynolds was introducing a whole new category. Reynolds was the first to invest heavily in cigarette-rolling machines, which afforded enormous efficiencies and profits. But Reynolds had to convince the world that his machine-rolled cigarettes were as desirable as hand-rolled. Exotic Egyptian cigarettes were popular at the time, so Reynolds started a brand of machine-rolled cigarettes made with a blend of American and Turkish tobacco. And what better to symbolize the exotic East than a camel?

To launch his new brand, Reynolds ran an ad campaign that would become the model for everything from war propaganda to movie releases. Rather than tell the world outright about his new product, he created a pre-launch buzz by running newspaper ads declaring "The Camels are coming!" without any further elucidation. The public interest was sufficiently piqued - some newspaper editors even had to take pity on the excited nerves of their younger readers and clarify that the circus was not, in fact, coming to town.


By the time Reynolds began to run his follow-up ads, announcing that "The Camel Cigarettes Are Here!" he had the smoking world's full attention. He paired his clever advertising with prices that undercut all his competitors - 20 cigarettes for ten cents - and sold 425 million packs of Camels in the company's first year. Camel was soon the standout brand in the R.J. Reynolds tobacco stable.

Today the marketing legacy of the tobacco industry is tarnished by years of ethically questionable practices. And very few historical brands emerge unscathed from an audit of their collateral on the basis of our current cultural sensitivities and values. R.J. Reynolds and Julian Carr were themselves complicated figures - both were hugely philanthropic, but obviously made their fortunes off of ultimate harm to their customers. Carr has also been criticized for his contradictory racial politics. All that taken into account however, it is undeniable that both Carr and Reynolds were marketing visionaries. Because even in today's saturated environment, who doesn't recognize the bull and the camel?

View the full catalogue for A Single-Owner Advertising and Americana Auction

Content created by LLA Content Director Elizabeth Sharp