Philippe Boucher's Rendez-vous with . . . Scott Plous

Rendez-vous with . . . Scott Plous
Professor of psychology at Wesleyan University
Middletown, Connecticut, USA

By Philippe Boucher

Rendez-vous 98
Thursday, May 3 , 2001

PB: Thank you Scott for accepting our rendez-vous.
May I ask you to introduce yourself?

Scott Plous : I'm Scott Plous, a professor of psychology at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. My area of expertise is social psychology -- the study of how people think about, influence, and relate to one another.

My connection to tobacco control is more personal than professional. Tobacco addiction nearly killed my father and was also a serious problem for my sister.

Q1. In your new site you say that Joe Chemo is a graphic creation of adbusters. Did someone in particular create the image and what is your personal connection with this cartoon?

SP: I came up with the idea of Joe Chemo in the mid-1990s, and I pitched the idea to Adbusters magazine. Adbusters liked the concept and had one of their artists render an image of Joe. The reaction was so positive that they subsequently published two other renderings, both of which can be seen on the web site. In fact, visitors to the site can send their favorite Joe Chemo image to a friend, family member, or coworker as a free electronic postcard.

Q2. Although this cartoon was created in '96 and has been reprinted in various occasions I assume it is still much less known than its now defunct (at least in the US) Reynolds counterpart. With this site you are trying to increase the dissemination of those images. Did you try to involve other organizations? like WHO, the big voluntary agencies, health departments?

SP: Unfortunately, Joe Chemo will never be as well known as the R.J. Reynolds' Joe Camel character. Joe Camel is one of the most famous smoking mascots of all time, perhaps second only to the Marlboro Man. A 1991 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that more than 90% of six-year-olds were able to match Joe Camel with a picture of a cigarette, making him as well-known as Mickey Mouse.

At the same time, Joe Chemo is certainly becoming more well known over time. Since 1996, Joe Chemo has appeared in or been mentioned by the Associated Press, Time, Newsweek, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Business Week, AdWeek, ABC and NBC television news, PBS, and other media outlets.

In addition, some health departments have made excellent use of Joe Chemo. For example, the Washington State Department of Health bought 10,000 Joe Chemo posters from Adbusters and placed them in schools all over the state. I would be delighted if WHO, the CDC, or any other group or agency were interested in using Joe Chemo as a vehicle to reduce smoking.

Q3. Today Camel ads are not cartoon like any longer. Is Joe Chemo still relevant? What about countering the new cigarette ads? any ideas?

SP: RJ Reynolds' Joe Camel character will be well known for years to come, but eventually, his fame will start to fade. Meanwhile, the relevance of Joe Chemo will persist as long as there is a link between smoking and the need for chemotherapy.

As for other counter-advertisements, the web site does include Winston and Kool cigarette parodies as part of an interactive feature in which visitors are able to test their "Tobacco IQ." And the site has links to other web sites with counter ads, such as,, and These groups have designed a number of hard-hitting counter ads.

Q4 . Having completed your tobacco IQ test, your question about a Winston ad relates directly to my previous question and triggers a suggestion : couldn't/shouldn't all the new cigarette ads be right away monitored, analyzed/criticized the way you did for this Winston ad? Isn't that a task for a University, bringing together psychologists, graphists, communications specialists?

SP: I think you're right, and in fact, many universities are starting to emphasize the importance of media literacy. At my own institution, Wesleyan University, students are able to take courses that focus on how to read "nonverbal texts." This kind of literacy is essential for people growing up in an image-intensive environment, if for no other reason than to avoid being easily manipulated.

Q5. Back to the graphics. If Joe Chemo is a creative anti-tobacco image where are the others? Don't you think the public health community has been very weak graphically? how do you explain that lack of good cartoons, posters? lack of connection with the artistic community while the industry is actively courting them? What solutions would you propose?

SP: Actually, I've seen some wonderfully creative anti-tobacco images, but it would be great to have even more images out there. Deceptive advertising images that link cigarettes with sex appeal need to be replaced with truthful images that link cigarettes with bad breath, impotence, rain forest destruction, and other consequences that matter to young people. Ideally, these consequences should be immediate rather than long-range, they should be vivid, and they should be hard to avoid or deny.

Q6. Is there anything else you would like to add?

SP: I appreciate the invitation to discuss the web site, and I would like to invite your readers to stop by for a visit. The site contains much more than I can mention here, including:
  • Information on how to book a full-body Joe Chemo costume for special events
  • Anti-smoking classroom exercises and video recommendations
  • Tips for health care professionals, business owners, and smokers who want to quit
Visitors can even get a personalized "Smoke-o-Scope" in which Joe Chemo tells their future!

I hope this resource will be useful to the tobacco control community, and I want to thank everyone who is involved in this struggle. Secondhand smoke alone kills more Americans each year than the number of U.S. soldiers who died during the entire Vietnam War, so this is a very, very important issue.

PB: Thank you Scott for taking the time to be with us today.

Rendez-vous is supported by a contract from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
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