The Marlboro Man is a figure used in tobacco advertising campaign for Marlboro cigarettes. In the United States, where the campaign originated, it was used from 1954 to 1999. The Marlboro Man was first conceived by Leo Burnett in 1954. The image involves a rugged cowboy or cowboys, in nature with only a cigarette. The advertisements were originally conceived as a way to popularize filtered cigarettes, which at the time were considered feminine.
The Marlboro advertising campaign, created by Leo Burnett Worldwide, is said to be one of the most brilliant advertisement campaigns of all time. It transformed a feminine campaign, with the slogan "Mild as May", into one that was masculine, in a matter of months. Although there were many Marlboro Men, the cowboy proved to be the most popular. This led to the "Marlboro Cowboy" and "Marlboro Country" campaigns.
Philip Morris & Co. (now Altria) had originally introduced the Marlboro brand as a woman's cigarette in 1924. Starting in the early 1950s, the cigarette industry began to focus on promoting filtered cigarettes, as a response to the emerging scientific data about harmful effects of smoking. Under the false impression that filtered cigarettes were safer, Marlboro, as well as other brands, started to be sold with filters. However, filtered cigarettes, Marlboro in particular, were considered to be women’s cigarettes. During market research in the 1950s, men indicated that while they would consider switching to a filtered cigarette, they were concerned about being seen smoking a cigarette marketed to women.
The repositioning of Marlboro as a men's cigarette was handled by Chicago advertiser Leo Burnett. Most filtered cigarette advertising sought to make claims about the technology behind the filter: through the use of complex terminology and scientific claims regarding the filter, the cigarette industry wanted to ease fears about the harmful effects of cigarette smoking through risk reduction. However, Leo Burnett decided to address the growing fears through an entirely different approach: creating ads completely void of health concerns or health claims of the filtered cigarette. Burnett felt that making claims about the effectiveness of filters furthered concerns of the long-term effects of smoking. Thus, refusing to respond to health claims matched the emergent, masculine image of the New Marlboro.
The proposed campaign was to present a lineup of manly figures: sea captains, weightlifters, war correspondents, construction workers, etc. The cowboy was to have been the first in this series. Burnett's inspiration for the exceedingly masculine "Marlboro Man" icon came in 1949 from an issue of LIFE magazine, whose photograph (shot by Leonard McCombe) and story of Texas cowboy Clarence Hailey Long caught his attention. Within a year, Marlboro's market share rose from less than one percent to the fourth best-selling brand. This convinced Philip Morris to drop the lineup of manly figures and stick with the cowboy. In the mid fifties, the cowboy image was popularized by actor Paul Birch in 3 page magazine ads and in TV ads.
Using another approach to expand the Marlboro Man market base, Philip Morris felt the prime market was “post adolescent kids who were just beginning to smoke as a way of declaring their independence from their parents.”
When the new Marlboro Country theme opened in late 1963, the actors utilized as Marlboro Man were replaced, for the most part, with real working cowboys. "In 1963, at the 6 6 6 6 Ranch in Guthrie, Texas, they discovered Carl "Big-un" Bradley. He was the first real cowboy they used, and from then on the lead Marlboro men were real cowboys, rodeo riders, stuntmen." Another of this new breed of real cowboys was Max Bryan "Turk" Robinson, of Hugo, Oklahoma; Turk says that he was recruited for the role while at a rodeo simply standing around behind the chutes, as was the custom for cowboys who had not yet ridden their event. It took only a few years for the results to register. By 1972, the new Marlboro Man would have had so much market appeal that Marlboro cigarettes were catapulted to the top of the tobacco industry.
Finding the Marlboro Man
Initially, commercials involving the Marlboro Man featured paid models, such as William Thourlby, pretending to carry out cowboy tasks. However, Burnett felt that the commercials lacked authenticity, as it was apparent that the subjects were not real cowboys and did not have the desired rugged look. One of the finest was a non-smoking rodeo cowboy, Max Bryan "Turk" Robinson, who was recruited at a rodeo. (Robinson lives in Hugo, Oklahoma and is alive and well as of February 2, 2014.) Leo Burnett was not satisfied with the cowboy actors found. Broadway and MGM movie actor Christian Haren won the role as the first Marlboro Man in the early 1960s as he looked the part. Burnett then came across Darrell Winfield, who worked on a ranch. Leo Burnett’s creative director was awed when he first saw Winfield: “I had seen cowboys, but I had never seen one that just really, like, he sort of scared the hell out of me (as he was so much a real cowboy).” Winfield’s immediate authenticity led to his 20-year run as the Marlboro Man, which lasted until the late 1980s. Upon Winfield’s retirement, Philip Morris reportedly spent $300 million searching for a new Marlboro Man.
After appearing as the Marlboro Man in 1987 advertising, former rodeo cowboy Brad Johnson landed a lead role in Steven Spielberg's feature film Always (1989), with Holly Hunter and Richard Dreyfuss.
The use of the Marlboro Man campaign had very significant and immediate effects on sales. In 1955, when the Marlboro Man campaign was started, sales were at $5 billion. By 1957, sales were at $20 billion, representing a 300% increase within two years. Philip Morris easily overcame growing health concerns through the Marlboro Man campaign, highlighting the success as well as the tobacco industry’s strong ability to use mass marketing to influence consumers.
The immediate success of the Marlboro Man campaign led to heavy imitation. Old Golds adopted the tagline marking it a cigarette for "independent thinkers". Chesterfield depicted cowboy and other masculine occupations to match their tagline: "Men of America" smoke Chesterfields.
Four men who claimed to have appeared in Marlboro-related advertisements—Wayne McLaren, David McLean, Dick Hammer and Eric Lawson —died of smoking-related diseases, thus earning Marlboro cigarettes, specifically Marlboro Reds, the nickname "Cowboy killers". McLaren testified in favor of anti-smoking legislation at the age of 51. During the time of McLaren's anti-smoking activism, Philip Morris denied that McLaren ever appeared in a Marlboro ad, a position it later amended to maintain that while he did appear in ads, he was not the Marlboro Man; Winfield held that title. In response, McLaren produced an affidavit from a talent agency that had represented him, along with a pay check stub, asserting he had been paid for work on a "Marlboro print" job. McLaren died before his 52nd birthday in 1992.
Eric Lawson, the fourth man to portray the smoking cowboy, who appeared in Marlboro print ads from 1978 to 1981, died at the age of 72 on January 10, 2014, of respiratory failure due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. A smoker since age 14, Lawson later appeared in an anti-smoking commercial that parodied the Marlboro Man, and also in an Entertainment Tonight segment to discuss the negative effects of smoking.
There is also a fifth claimant to the Marlboro Man title. In The Cowboy and His Elephant, written by Malcolm MacPherson, which is ostensibly a biography of Norris and mainly focuses on his raising an elephant on his ranch, MacPherson describes how Bob Norris came to be photographed for Life magazine and become the Marlboro Man for the next 12 years (pp. 63–67). The back cover to the book also cites Norris as the Marlboro Man.
In many countries, the Marlboro Man is an icon of the past due to increasing pressure on tobacco advertising for health reasons, especially where the practice of smoking appears to be celebrated or glorified. The deaths described above may also have made it more difficult to use the campaign without attracting negative comment. The Marlboro Man image continued until at least the early 2000s, in countries such as Germany and the Czech Republic. It still continues in Japan (on tobacco vending machines, for example), where smoking is widespread in the male population.
Death in the West
Death in the West, a Thames Television documentary, is an exposé of the cigarette industry that aired on British television in 1976 and exposes the myth of the Marlboro Man. In its March/April 1996 issue, Mother Jones said of Death in the West: "It is one of the most powerful anti-smoking films ever made. You will never see it." The second sentence refers to the fact that Philip Morris sued the filmmakers, and in a 1979 secret settlement all copies were suppressed. However, Professor Stanton Glantz released the film and San Francisco's then-NBC affiliate KRON-TV aired the documentary in May, 1982.
The California Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation, in cooperation with the Risk and Youth: Smoking Project Lawrence Hall of Science University of California, Berkeley, created a manual to accompany the film, titled "A Curriculum for Death in the West". The first two paragraphs of the Introduction read:
The California Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation is pleased to provide this booklet containing a self-contained curriculum for upper elementary and junior high school students to supplement the viewing of "Death in the West." Considered by many to be the most powerful anti-smoking documentary ever made, "Death in the West" contrasts the advertising image of the "Marlboro Man" with the reality of six American cowboys dying of cigarette-related illnesses. The film, produced in England in 1976 and later suppressed by the Philip Morris Company, makers of Marlboro cigarettes, illustrates the intrinsically false nature of cigarette advertising. It makes the Marlboro Man less attractive. The "Death in the West" Curriculum is designed to maximize the educational and emotional impact of seeing the documentary. The curriculum is based on a comprehensive smoking prevention program created and tested by the Risk and Youth: Smoking Project of the Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley. The activities included here were developed in classrooms throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and adapted specifically for use with the airing of "Death in the West" by KRON-TV of San Francisco.
In popular culture
Artist Richard Prince's series known as the Cowboys (produced from 1980 to 1992 and ongoing) is his most famous group of appropriated rephotographs, in this case taken from Marlboro cigarette advertisements of the Marlboro Man.
The Marlboro Man was portrayed by Don Johnson in the film Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991). Sam Elliott plays Lorne Lutch, a cancer stricken former Marlboro Man in Thank You for Smoking (2005).
In the Seinfeld episode "The Abstinence", Cosmo Kramer sues a tobacco company but settles out of court. His settlement is the placement of his face as that of the Marlboro Man's on a billboard in Times Square.
The Harvey Danger song "Sad Sweetheart of the Rodeo" features the sarcastic verse "The Marlboro Man died of cancer/And he wasn't a rocket scientist when he was healthy/ha ha ha".
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