Indie Rock vs. Rolling Stone, Camel Cigs (2.1.08)

Posted on July 28, 2008


It looks like an innocent little sketch in some well-read Pitchfork-devotee’s algebra notebook. The colored pencil strokes and the whimsical outer space doodles could have provided someone a study hall’s worth of entertainment

while neatly arranging and categorizing all their favorite bands across a few pages of college ruled paper in comix constellations.

The only problem was that the whole thing was bookended with an ad for Camel cigarettes touting their new “Free Range Bands” program to support underground bands.

Rolling Stone ran the mock sketchbook in its November issue as a special fold-out section attached to a Camel ad produced in a similar color scheme and goofy aesthetic. There was no direct crossover of the logo, but it didn’t take a magnifying glass to read between the lines — the whole thing was one big marketing scheme.

The magazine and RJ Reynolds have both since been served with lawsuits from several states on top of a huge class action suit from two of the bands mentioned in the fold-out (Xiu Xiu and Fucked Up) that cites possible damages of up to a jaw-dropping $195.3 billion. That figure is, shall we say, shooting a little high (it’s based on a California law that would award $750 per issue of R.S.), but it wouldn’t be suprising to see them get some kind of

a hefty windfall. The case is the latest in a cycle of misappropriation issues that first started getting attention in the ‘80s in series of cases fought and

won by Woody Allen, Bette Midler and Tom Waits in instances where impersonations of them were used to simulate their complicity in advertisements. And they walked away with millions.

This case is a little different — there are no impersonators or use of any of the bands’ music — but it can expected to play out along similar lines. A nugget in the bands’ lawsuit called the sketch and list of the bands in the fold-out “an essential credibility-generating engine within the advertising apparatus designed to deliver these commercial ‘goods.’”

The central argument seems to be about how directly the Camel ad was tied to the sketchbook chart. Rolling Stone and Camel both quickly claimed ignorance of each other, the official line being that the magazine produced the sketchbook on their own and Camel supplied the ad, the similarity in both parties’ content totally unknown to each other.

Not many people bought the story from the beginning, though. Prosecutors for eight states quickly sued both companies over the content in the ads, citing the 1998 case against Camel that effectively banned the company from ever using Joe Camel or any other cartoon in an advertisement. Neither company has budged on the issue, but maybe actions speak louder than words: Camel has put their entire Free Range project on hold and pulled all ads in print.

[Originally published in Performer Magazine, February 2008]