As a character, perhaps none have been so in-tune with a country's psyche as the Marlboro Man has for America. He was everything that the society of the time wanted, or at least were told to want - strength, independence and freedom.
There is an undeniable attraction to danger. We love those willing to live recklessly, a seemingly all-encompassing nihilistic streak that manifests as behavioural fatalism. The romance of these kinds of people has long woven its spell over us. It works in film, literature and art - but it's in advertising that this character embedded itself into the psychology of the American masses.
Marlboro and ad agency Leo Burnett decided to target men. To do so they wanted something that showed a life that was rugged and masculine - an ideal that men of all ages could relate to. It had to be something that resonated with the common American man but also with white-collar executives. Swerving the pot-hole of specificities, they chose to portray an unnamed cowboy. Who didn't want to be one at that time? John Wayne was in his prime and as the campaign progressed from its inception in 1954, Clint Eastwood also emerged as an American icon. They epitomised the maxim: men wanted to be them, women wanted to be with them.
The Marlboro Man wasn't a Steve or a Chad. He could have been either or neither. He was a composite character that could have been anyone - even you. It was in 1964 with A Fistful of Dollars that Clint Eastwood became the Man With No Name. A decade prior, Marlboro tapped into that secret part of the American imagination. He was the will and drive to explore the frontier. He wasn't going to answer to anyone.
Marlboro had initially been introduced as a woman's cigarette. They were 'Mild As May', unfiltered smokes, until the health industry began to take notice and publish insights into the harmful effects of smoking. As filtration became a necessity, this further feminized the Marlboro brand in the eyes of American men. They were marketed to woman, but also marketed as safe. Part of the allure was the danger. Cigarettes tapped into the fatalistic part of our brains that screamed out danger is exciting, it's sexy! Like the leading men on screen, the everyday chap wanted to obtain some of this allure. It was promised through cigarettes - but not if they were branded as safe.
Marlboro, through extensive market research, cottoned on to this trend of the idealised image of the smoker. The widespread response by other brands was to talk about their increased safety now that they were filtered - that if you smoked them you'd have God on your side, or at least not cancer. Marlboro decided against that. Instead of telling you to be safe, they decided to say something else entirely. Instead they made allusions to the danger - most importantly though, they suggested that smoking was about independence. You're your own man and you'll do whatever the hell you want, won't you?
Yes, was the resounding answer. But how were they going to do it? Burnett had noticed a photograph from Life magazine of a cowboy from a ranch in the States - Clarence Hailey Long. It had stuck in his mind. The man epitomised freedom with his deep-set wrinkles and slightly sunburned face - it radiated an aura of a life well lived. He was the one.
The tagline, 'Come to where the flavor is' beckoned smokers and non-smokers alike to jump ship or jump on board. If the alluring image of the leading man wasn't enough, here was his invite. It never seemed like it came from an agency, it seemed to come straight from the wildman's mouth. Who was willing to refuse such an offer?
Not the American public anyway. The campaign was instantly successful. In 1955, sales of the cigarettes were at $5 billion - an over 3000% increase on the year prior to the campaign. Before the Marlboro Man made his way onto screens and billboards, handsome and mysterious, sat atop his horse - the company had a 1% market share. One year on the company were the fourth best-selling in America. Since 1972 it has been the country's best-selling brand.
Individualism is and always has been at the core of American society. It is based on this notion that the idea of the American Dream has transcended the country's borders to become a global idea - that anyone can become anything if they work hard enough. Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club thrust itself onto the world's screens, via the eponymous novel, in 1999. The main character Tyler Durden, later revealed to be a figment of the narrator's imagination, is a contemporary version of this same American ideal - the same one that allowed the Marlboro Man to exist in the first place. Both are the part of your mind that imagines what you could be. With the Marlboro Man you were even offered a way - buy their cigarettes.
The thing is, they are both just ideals. Most cowboy's don't smoke, it's a hinderance to their day (the preferred way of consuming tobacco is to chew it) - a lot of rodeo men and cowboy's actually turned down the role of playing the Marlboro Man based on their disliking of the habit. That doesn't mean we don't like to think that they smoke though. Such is the power of film and old stories that characters symbolise something - independence in this case, and carry many habits and tidbits that you'd associate with it - smoking, tattoos, drinking.
Real life isn't an ideal, it could never be. That is the genius of the Marlboro Man campaign and character. Why sell someone real-life? They're surrounded by that all the time. Real life is exactly what they're trying to escape from. When they were selling these cigarettes they were selling something much bigger than that, much bigger and more powerful than even an idea - they sold the American Dream and America loved it - even though it was killing them.
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