The Marlboro Man Meets the Surgeon General



Philip Morris began a legacy of bold moves to meet market challenges by taking a virtually unknown woman's cigarette and reintroducing it with a new masculine face and filter in the midst of the first lung cancer reports . Marlboro was first introduced to the public in the 1920s behind the theme "Mild as May". The brand originally targeted a female audience through a series of ads in 1926 showing a feminine hand reaching for a cigarette(PM History 6). It faced trouble in the 1930s and attempted to rejuvenate itself with a clever advertising gimmick, changing the ivory tip to red in order not to smear ladies' lipstick. During World War II, however, the brand again faltered and had to be taken off the market. Three brands, Camel, Lucky Strike and Chesterfields surfaced with a firm hold on consumers after the war. Mass production in the late nineteenth century and the development of the corporation in the twenties had left "America transformed from a culture urging self-restraint to one built on immediate gratification through the ownership of goods and pursuit of leisure time."(JAH 1020). After the rationing of popular brands, such as Camel, and a severe shortage of tobacco during the war, the fifties were an exaggerated example of this change in American culture. Cigarettes were consumed in abundance. They were considered both glamorous and beneficial at the time and were promoted by head lines that read "For Digestion's sake smoke Camels." or "Lucky Strike-A Light Smoke." Differentials in price and make had existed for years without much shift in brand preference, indicating a marked inelasticity for certain brands. The market was not welcoming to new types of cigarettes and it was speculated that "smokers could be expected to stay with the same brand for a lifetime, unless provoked to change."(White 121).

Philip Morris saw its chance to reintroduce Marlboro in the early fifties when the first studies linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer were released. Consumers began feeling mislead by the established brands and dropped their old allegiances. They were willing to try other brands but were unable to break away from smoking completely, due to what would later be attributed to nicotine addiction. Disillusioned consumers turned to Marlboros, the new "safer" filtered brand. Ross B. Millhiser, president of Philip Morris in 1968, looked back on Marlboro's window of opportunity and explained that "the filter revolution caused more switching than all the cigarette manufacturers with all their money could have induced."(White 121) Unfortunately for Marlboro, formerly known to be "Mild as May", the new filters were considered effiminate. The dilemma would be to appeal to the attitudes of an old group of customers with a new concern, addicted men who feared lung cancer.

Philip Morris took the challenge to a midwestern agency, the Leo Burnett Company of Chicago, and reintroduced Marlboro to the nation in 1955 with the "Tattooed Man" campaign. Joseph Cullman, then president and chief executive officer of Philip Morris Inc., explained, "We felt that West of the Alleghanies we could secure a better understanding and feel of grass-roots America and what it wanted in a cigarette."(Esquire 8/60 146) The resulting campaign assured buyers, with television commercials and printed pages, that "You get a lot to like with Marlboro, filter, flavor, flip- top box." The image of the "new Marlboro smoker as a lean, relaxed outdoorsman--a cattle rancher, a Navy officer, a flyer--whose tattooed wrist suggested a romantic past, a man who had once worked with his hands, who knew the score, who merited respect,"(Esquire 6/60 146) proved that there was nothing sissy or feminine about these filtered cigarettes. The first advertisements spoke directly to the masculine audience suggesting in a descriptive paragraph that they try "old fashioned flavor in a new way to smoke." They reassured men that the filter did not change Marlboro quality and the

     Man-sized taste of honest tobacco comes full through.  Smooth-
     drawing filter feels right in your mouth.  Works fine but doesn't
     get in the way.  Modern Flip-top box keeps every cigarette firm
     and fresh until you smoke it. (Made in Richmond, Virginia, from
     a new Marlboro Recipe)   
[Image 1]

Black and white full-page advertisements were divided between large blocks of information about the new filter and flip-top box and a close-up, weathered, handsome, face whose strong tattooed hand held a Marlboro cigarette. The brand name, printed bold and extra-large in its own blocked- out top section of the page was mirrored on a smaller scale in a pack of Marlboro cigarettes in the bottom corner of the page. The picture of the pack also had its own detailed copy, "New Flip-Top Box. Sturdy to keep cigarettes from crushing. No tobacco in your pocket. Up to date. Popular filter price." In a voice that was friendly, unpretentious and honest the Marlboro men gained the trust of millions. The "Tattooed Man" campaign was described by Cullman, as "virility without vulgarity, quality without snobbery"(Esquire 6/60). In New York after their introduction in 1955, Marlboro became the top selling filtered cigarette literally overnight, and eight months after the campaign opened, sales had increased 5,000 per cent(Esquire 6/60).

The "Tattooed Man" campaign provided a diverse pool of working men as applicants for the final Marlboro representative. In the first years of advertisements public responses to the different personalities were monitored and the cowboy gradually emerged as the most popular character. Repetition and clear, compelling imagery through the years became key factors in Marlboro's keen brand identification today. "Frequent repetition is necessary to impress the sales message so deeply that it will affect buying behavior even when the logical content of the message is forgotten."(Tennant 170). The Leo Burnett Company began building a foundation of knowledge for the consumer to be reemphasized every time the Marlboro man was seen. Thus, the first time the public met the Marlboro cowboy he was not the silent image of advertisements today; he had to explain himself and his product. Life magazine ran a three page spread [Image 2] in January 1957 entitled "The Marlboro Man. What's he like..." The next two pages contained a eight-frame story board with different action shots of the plump, middle-aged cowboy still donning the tattooed hand, but wearing western boots, hat and a business suit. The top of the page reads, "The Marlboro Man speaks for himself...". He takes the reader on a tour of his ranch and describes Marlboro's filter, flavor, and flip- top box in a casual monologue. He introduces himself, "I'm a rancher. Grew up in this part of the country..." and his Western way of life, "Own my own ranch...ride from one end of it to the other every day...I like the life a man leads out here... the good feeling of being your own boss." At the precise moment the reader begins to get jealous, the tactful Marlboro man redirects the conversation to a more familiar topic, "Like to smoke, too. [He's a lot like you] My brand's MARLBORO. In my book, it's a lot of cigarette..." The connection between the West, being one's own boss and smoking Marlboros is made in four frames and then supported by the reader's new friend, the Marlboro Man, and his promise of a quality that appeals to every man, from the "easy-drawing filter" to the box which keeps loose tobacco "out of a man's pocket". Finally, he directly addresses the reader as he takes a draw of his cigarette, "You know what they say about MARLBORO, don't you? 'You get a lot to like.' Well that's how it is living on a ranch. You'd like that, too." By spelling out the image in this first introduction, and by repeating the educational information through the years, the Marlboro Man would never again have to explicitly ask the question, "You know what they say about Marlboro?" A narrowing process followed over the next forty years where this cowboy was recognized in a slew of campaigns. He taught the consumer about filters, promoted the flip-top box, enticed women to try "the cigarette made for men that women like", explained that long white ashes are a sign of good tobacco, and invited us to relax. Eventually he could be silent and his reputation and familiarity would beckons us without words to come with him to a place we would come to know well, Marlboro Country.

Philip Morris, with the Marlboro cowboy, has capitalized on what the cigarette advertising industry realized as an unique quality in its products. "The physical characteristics of the standard brands are nearly identical and their individual demands are highly elastic, yet despite close similarity, consumers are not indifferent to the choice of brands but show enduring loyalties based upon very slight physical differences or upon irrational grounds."(Tennant 163). The irrational appeal of the strong individual is bolstered by the strong geometric design of the red, white and black-lettered flip-top package. It was designed by Frank Gianininoto in 1954 and carefully tested through consumer surveys by Elmo Roper&Associates and the Color Research Institute.(Advertising Age 11/9/88) When displayed on open cigar counters consumer reaction was gauged on hidden cameras as their eyes settled on the bright packaging(Esquire 6/60). Like a cowboy's holster for his favorite gun the packaging makes a statement. It is estimated that the average smoker removes his or her cigarettes 20-25 times a day. In 1987, Thirty-two years after the box was designed, Forbes magazine(2/9/87) polled smokers and offered them Marlboro cigarettes unaltered except in a generic brown box and at half price. Only 21% were interested. The public embraced the red box as a symbol of membership to the club that recognized the Marlboro Man as their spokes-person. A 1959 ad showed the Flip-top box as a unifying element "From the Klondike to Key West.... Every man is a 'Marlboro Man' once he discovers that Marlboro is for real smoking." [Image 3]. The box is a carrying card available to everyone. It is visable proof of participation in or appreciation for a certain idealized way of life that not many actually get to experience. Consumers carrying the box were now investing themselves and their reputation in the positive image of the Marlboro Man.


  • Introduction
  • From "Mild as May" to "Tough as Shoeleather"
  • Promotions, Sports, and Fantasy Consumerism
  • Bibliography
  • Return to Home Page