Marlboro Man campaigns

Somewhere, there exists an America inhabited solely by characters from product advertising campaigns. Imagine Mr. Clean taking up residence in our country’s kitchens, resting his bald pate in the broom closet and renting out cabinet space to the Jolly Green Giant, who rumbles off to tend the farmlands with the dawn.

In such a landscape, a single character would surely dominate the American West. The California Raisins might occupy the Hollywood hills, but from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi, no one could lasso customers like the Marlboro Man. While he may not be one of the most beloved characters, the Marlboro Man — shady past and all — was a fixture of our culture for decades. When it came to selling cigarettes, the cowboy got the job done.

For Morning Edition, NPR’s Kathleen Schalch reports on the origins of the icon that helped to transform Marlboro from the lowliest of brands in Philip Morris’ stable of cigarettes into the company’s prize money winner.

In the 1920s, Marlboro was first advertised as a premium cigarette for women, a milder version of the smokes well dressed men might puff on after dinner. But the brand never took hold, and by the 1950s concerns over the connection between smoking and cancer drove many smokers to filtered brands. Philip Morris didn’t have a filtered cigarette, so it scrapped the old campaign in favor of re-launching Marlboro as the company’s filtered alternative.

After deciding to introduce filters to the brand, Marlboro executives still had the brand’s feminine image to deal with. As Schalch reports, it didn’t help that filtered cigarettes were considered softer versions of the real thing, cigarettes for sissies.

For help, Marlboro turned to Leo Burnett’s advertising company. In a 1972 documentary, Burnett recalled the brainstorming session in which they stumbled upon their icon.

“I said, ‘What’s the most masculine symbol you can think of?’ And right off the top of his head one of these writers spoke up and said a cowboy. And I said, ‘That’s for sure.'”

The first Marlboro men weren’t limited to cowboys. They were all sorts of rugged individuals who smoked their cigarettes while performing equally manly tasks, from fixing their cars to fishing or hunting.

The rather abrupt advertising about-face sparked a similar turn in sales. By 1957, Marlboro cigarettes sales were skyrocketing. Unfortunately for Philip Morris, however, 1957 also brought with it one of the first rounds of negative publicity. A study published in Reader’s Digest linked smoking with cancer.

In response, Marlboro once again turned to show its softer side. But this time it made sure to do so in a way that might retain the masculine appeal the company had worked so hard to cultivate, while calming the nerves of anxious smokers. Instead of focusing on the mysterious tattooed Marlboro Man, it turned the camera to sultry singer Julie London, who would share a smoke with her lucky male companion in between verses of the dreamy new “Settle Back With a Marlboro” theme.

These commercials, paired with print ads that showed apparently wealthy men relaxing for a smoke, lasted for a while. But as American politics became more complicated in the 1960s, Jack Landry, the Marlboro brand manager at Philip Morris, saw an opening into which the cowboy fit like a glove.

“In a world that was becoming increasingly complex and frustrating for the ordinary man,” Landry explained, “the cowboy represented an antithesis — a man whose environment was simplistic and relatively pressure free. He was his own man in a world he owned.”

Marlboro’s television advertisements in the ’60s reflected the idea of freedom in wide-open spaces, especially once the theme from the movie The Magnificent Seven was added to the scenes of cowboys leading their herds through dusty canyons of “Marlboro Country” or charging off to rein in a stray colt.

Part of the success of the campaign might be attributable to the fact that Marlboro forged some credibility by using real cowboys in some of the ads instead of actors just playing the part.

The image took hold with enough force that even through a ban on televised tobacco advertisements that began in 1971, the Marlboro Man survived unharmed. Instead of riding off into the sunset, the image turned up in print ads and on billboards all over the country.

While a government ban couldn’t kill the Marlboro Man, the instrument that ended up doing the trick was the product itself. Two Marlboro men, Wayne McLaren and David McLean, died of lung cancer, but not before McLaren could testify in favor of anti-smoking legislation.

Historian Interpretation

In a sense, . . . the cowboy [was an] oppressed worker, or at least one who apparently had little chance to rise to a higher level, something that ran counter to the American tradition. Futilely he tried to object, as did eastern workers, and there were efforts to organize and to strike. The Knights of Labor had a good many cowboys on its rolls. . . . If one looks more closely at the Marlboro Man, one will notice that in most of these advertisements he is no mere cowpoke. He is a stockman, a mature American with the proper wrinkles around his eyes to prove that he has been out of doors, but his dress is that of an owner, not of an employeea businessman with roots, with property; and he is not a drifter. He is solid and conservative.

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