When I was a child, and I am not that old mind you, the neighborhood movie theatre used to run matinees for children on summer Wednesdays when school was out. For the, even then, measly sum of thirty-five cents, we would get two cartoons, a newsreel, a nature documentary and a double feature unless the feature was It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. And though nowadays there is usually a huge uproar about advertising in the movie theatres, my friends and I used to consider them shorts, especially since they were usually not targeted at us. The best were the mini westerns set to the music of The Magnificent Seven (taa-daa, ta-da ta-da) that starred that icon of my youth, the Marlboro Man. Rugged and handsome, he would fill the screen with his craggy features whenever the camera was not showing the vast expanses of exotic (to us living in the Tropics at least) American prairie, which we of course all knew as Marlboro country. We all wanted to be him, he was the epitome of cool. Yes, he was smoking and even then we knew that was what was being sold, but we just longed for the campfires and the easy camaraderie of those cowboys.
As is pointed out in the Marlboro wu, the brand, in its unfiltered incarnation, was originally targeted at women, sold by the tagline Mild as May and by 1930 even sporting a red tip so as not to show the unsightly lipstick smear. The use of such gimmicks was a sign of desperation though, as the brand faced and then achieved extinction during World War II.
By the 1950s, the first news that cigarette smoking may be bad for you started circulating. The tobacco industry, in characteristic fashion, responded with a form over substance solution and introduced tips of wadded up cellulose fibers thereby creating safer, filtered, coffin nails. Not wanting to waste anything, Philip Morris revived the brand, slapped a filter on it and introduced a then innovative flip top box. They also decided to target all those men that could not quit smoking because of their nicotine addiction but were scared of the news about the health hazards of tobacco.
The company contracted with the legendary Chicago advertising agency, Leo Burnett (also famous for Tony the Tiger) to reposition the brand as a bulwark of masculinity. The first campaign to come out of that partnership was the tattooed man series of ads. They all showed rugged men with tattooed wrists holding up the box, amongst them, a cowboy, which tested well with consumers and slowly took over until he became the only character used in 1964. By 1967 the Marlboro man was contributing US$20 Billion a year in sales to Philip Morris.
Though TV advertising of cigarettes was banned in 1971, the Marlboro man no longer required explanation and could stand alone on the printed page, propelling the brand to the number one selling cigarette worldwide in 1972. Marlboro commanded 38% of the US market in 2003 supported by US$2.5 billion in advertising which is still mostly centered around our old friend, which Advertising Age has designated as the number one ad icon of the century. Not bad for an 80 plus year old brand still running a fifty year old campaign.
I know he is ultimately evil and that ironically a couple of “Marlboro men” died of cancer. As an ex-smoker who had a rough time knocking the habit, I also know the power of seduction carried by those images and their pernicious effect on suggestible minds; I still miss the sweeping beauty of the ads; however, I may just be nostalgic for my youth and the innocent possibility of the endless prairie.
The top ten ad icons of the last century according to Advertising Age:
- The Marlboro Man
- Ronald McDonald
- The Green Giant
- Betty Crocker
- The Energizer Bunny
- The Pillsbury Doughboy
- Aunt Jemima
- The Michelin Man
- Tony the Tiger
The Marlboro Man: The Making of an American Image,Katherine M. West,http://xroads.virginia.edu/~CLASS/AM483_95/projects/marlboro/mman.html, 5/24/2005
A Dynamic Analysis of the U.S. Cigarette Market and Anti-smoking Policies,Wei Tan,http://ideas.repec.org/p/wpa/wuwpio/0411001.html, 5/24/2005
Advertising Age - The advertising century, http://www.adage.com/century/ad_icons.html, 5/24/05