The Marlboro Man is an American icon (symbol). The cowboy figure used to market Marlboro cigarettes (see entry under 1920s—Commerce in volume 2) captures the essence of the ideal American man. The Marlboro Man looks tough and weather-beaten like a man who values a hard day's work. The Marlboro Man wears a cowboy hat, rides a horse, and his clothes are often covered in dust.
The Marlboro Man has displayed the distinctive red Marlboro cigarette pack for almost fifty years—on billboards, in store window displays, and on the pages of magazines and newspapers. Until the government ban on cigarette commercials in 1972, the Marlboro Man could also be seen on television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3), usually accompanied by the rousing musical theme from the Western film The Magnificent Seven (1960).
But Marlboro cigarettes were not always sold using the image of this macho figure. When Marlboro cigarettes were first introduced in the 1920s, they were marketed to women, with the slogan "Mild as May." This approach was successful until World War II (1939–45), when slow sales caused Marlboro packs to be withdrawn from the market. The cigarettes were revived in the 1950s, as the first medical research linking cigarette smoking with cancer began to reach the public. It was thought that Marlboro cigarettes, with their filter, might offer smokers the illusion of a reduced health risk. However, the filter was regarded as effeminate by many men, who made up the bulk of the market.
The Leo Burnett Company, a Chicago advertising (see entry under 1920s—Commerce in volume 2) agency, was given the task of making Marlboro cigarettes appealing to men. The result was the "tattooed man" campaign. It involved a series of print ads showing a man with a tattoo on his hand holding a Marlboro. The man would be one of several "manly" types, such as a policeman, a firefighter, a construction worker—or a cowboy. The agency studied consumer response, and the cowboy figure proved to be the most popular. By 1957, the cowboy had replaced all the others. The image of the rugged Westerner lighting up amidst the great outdoors became a part of American culture. It also helped to make Marlboro the best-selling cigarette in America.
For More Information
Lohof, Bruce A. American Commonplace. Bowling Green, OH: Popular Press, 1982.