The most powerful — and in some quarters, most hated — brand image of the century, the Marlboro Man stands worldwide as the ultimate American cowboy and masculine trademark, helping establish Marlboro as the best-selling cigarette in the world.
Today, even a mention of the Marlboro Man as an effective ad icon brings protests from healthcare workers who see first-hand the devastation wrought by decades of cigarette smoking. More than any other issue, the ethics of tobacco advertising — both morally and legally — have divided the advertising industry.
But even those ad professionals who abhor the tobacco industry will, when pressed, agree that the Marlboro Man has had unprecedented success as a global marketing tool for selling Philip Morris Cos.’ brand.
In the beginning back in the 1950s, a time when cigarettes were accepted in even the politest society, Burnett created the macho icon as a way to reposition Marlboro from a “mild as May” ladies cigarette to a product with broader appeal. The original newspaper ad from Burnett carried the slogan “delivers the goods on flavor” and it immediately sent sales skyrocketing.
By the time the Marlboro Man went national in 1955, sales were at $5 billion, a 3,241% jump over 1954 and light years ahead of pre-cowboy sales, when the brand’s U.S. share stood at less than 1%.
Despite his appeal, the cowboy wasn’t the only rough-and-tumble image used to sell the brand’s image. Over the next decade, Burnett experimented with other manly types — ball players, race car drivers and rugged guys with tattoos (often friends of the creative team, sporting fake tattoos). All the pitches worked.
Even with the release in 1957 of the first article in Reader’s Digest linking lung cancer to smoking, the real men of the Marlboro ads kept ringing up sales ($20 billion that year), attracting new smokers of both genders. In 1964, the company revived the cowboy but this time he was in mythical Marlboro Country.
This vivid image paid off in 1971 when cigarette ads were banned from TV. The striking print shot of cowboys enjoying a smoke on horseback continued to fuel sales growth. In 1972, Marlboro became the No. 1 tobacco brand in the world.
As the anti-smoking movement has spread, the Marlboro Man has come under particular attack for his role in luring new customers to a cancer-causing habit.
As a commercial icon, he is both reviled and revered. Yet one measure of this icon’s clout is that no matter how minimal the imagery gets — reduced on occasion to little more than a saddle and splash of red — it still remains instantly evocative of a mythical Marlboro country, of a mythical American cowboy and of the No. 1 brand of cigarettes that gave that cowboy real lung cancer.