Promotions, Sports, and Fantasy Consumerism



Promotions mean exposure, an important element in advertising, of which Marlboro has taken full advantage. Marlboro has gained allies in the art and entertainment world by sponsoring sales promotions on its packs that donate money to local museums and by budgeting money toward cultural recipients from the American Crafts Museum to the Dance Theater of Harlem. (Business Week 8/8/88) New York's Lincoln Center for performing Arts, in 1987 allowed a huge banner advertising the Marlboro Country Music Festival featuring Dolly Parton, Alabama, and the Judds, to hang on the front of the public building flashing the red and white triangular logo of Marlboro cigarettes. The Country Music Festival banner follows the Marlboro Western image, but like the Marlboro Country ads the placement of the banner, hanging in New York, shows the appeal is not limited to a country Western audience.

Before the ban of cigarette commercials in 1972, Philip Morris sponsored television events including the weekly coast to coast pro-football and championship playoffs, Perry Mason, Rawhide, a western series, and Troubleshooters, an adventure-thriller.(Esquire 1960). Mike Wallace's Night Beat, sponsored by Marlboro after it's first night on the air, embodied the qualities the company was looking to associate itself with, "Shock impact, originality, a talented reporter obviously in the ascendant...and an intimation of public service through fearless reporting"(Esquire 1960). After the ban, Marlboro chose sports events for their promotions. Once off the TV air waves, the company stopped sponsoring big, team sports such as football and baseball which were sponsored by other cigarette companies. Marlboro preferred to be the solo sponsor of solo sports. Emphasizing the rough individual, Marlboro invited all of its patrons who sat safe at home smoking Marlboros from the red and white pack to feel a part of the win each of the 28 times Marlboro Formula One driver, Alan Prost, crossed the finish line.(PM History 38) Sponsorship became a clever way to get around the restrictions. During the 1989 Grand Prix, a promotional sign for Marlboro that hung by the track was clearly visible for 46.17 minutes of NBC's 93.62 minute coverage of the event.(Channels 1/1990).

Sports and outdoors gear is a logical extension in the minds of consumers who have grown to know the Marlboro Man and his wild country. A promotion that saved the number one brand during the recession of the early 1990s featured the essence of the Marlboro Man's adventure and virility. During the recession, while "brands in other industries faltered, tobacco's image-mongers persuaded smokers not just to remain loyal but to accept huge, twice yearly price hikes"(The Economist 4/10/93) based on the notion that cigarettes were "price inelastic" and the big names would remain competitive no matter what the price. The $.80 to $1.00 gap between premium brands and generics had become too much and consumers were switching to generics at an alarming rate. In 1981 discount cigarettes claimed none of the market, but by 1993 they occupied more than 30%.(Economist 4/10/93). Frugal shoppers were switching to unknown brands and not switching back even as the recession waned. Afraid that they would permanently lose their market share which plunged with the brand's share of shipment volume from 26% in 1989 to 21.3% in 1993(Advertising Age 4/5/93), Philip Morris announced a plan which has been deemed their "biggest gamble with the almost priceless Marlboro franchise"(Brandweek 11/12/93). The plan included a twice extended $200 million promotion as well as price cuts totalling up to 60 cents a pack to narrow the margin between the generic brands.

The promotion, Marlboro Adventure Team, advertised in ten page brochures to distributors, posters, high-tech exhibits, buttons and special packaging, features a group of ten outdoorsmen who hike and bike through the Southwest. Consumers were invited to participate and team up with the adventurers. An accountant working in the basement of a New York firm could earn 'miles' by saving specially marked UPC codes on Marlboro packs and vicariously enjoy the life of a Marlboro Man roughing it in the mountains. The miles redeemable for licensed sportswear and gear, "an upscale outdoorsy set [which] includes heavy parkas, fleece pullovers, sleeping bags, rainsuits, Swiss Army watches, carabineer key chains and all- weather lighters."(Brandweek 12/14/92). The promotion countered R.J. Renyold's, Philip Morris' greatest competitor's, Camel Cash promotion which offered trendy, hip, quirky Joe Camel products. Ironically, the "Adventure Team" promotion was the first and only period in which advertising did not show the Marlboro man or smokers.

The dramatic price cut, called 'Marlboro Friday' on Wall Street, caused Philip Morris stock to drop from $64.12 to $49.37, a 23% drop that represented a one day loss of $13 billion in shareholder equity and left 30 points attributable to Philip Morris alone in a drop of 68.83 points in the Dow Jones industrial average.(Advertising Age 3/26/94). Experts were skeptical of the plan, noting the expense of $2.4 billion in Philip Morris USA's 1993 operating income, but Marlboro had increased its market share to 26.8% from an all time low of 22.1% in just nine months--in a market place where every share point is valued at $450 million.(Brandweek 3/28/94). Philip Morris could afford the investment in its future. Ellen Merlo, vice president of corporate affairs, expressed that "from the visibility, awareness, and number of participants [consumers ordered 14 million Adventure Team items]--this promotion is if not the most successful, one of the most successful promotions ever run in the package-goods industry,"(Advertising Age 12/28/93).

Philip Morris and Marlboro know what they are talking about when they mention visibility, awareness, and advertising success. Along with their foresight and gumption to boldly meet challenges in the market place, their advertisements have also kept the public's interest, by retaining and refining the same image and visibility for almost forty years. While others have varied, Marlboro remained consistent, clear and compelling in it's imagery. Marlboro has used tactics as simple as giving away a Marlboro Sports Calendar with sports fans team listings, and as involved as the latest "Country Store Gear" sales, a scaled down version of "Marlboro Adventure Team"[Image 9] which invites participants to "Head out, Ride Hard, Kick Back and Gear Up". A multimillion dollar glossy quarterly, Philip Morris Magazine, is distributed free to more than five million customers at the net cost of $1.75 million/issue(White 131). Sponsorship of events secures strong allies in the struggle against anti-smoking legislation, and sales of promotional gear provide contacts and an enormous mailing list in case of a future ban on printed cigarette advertisements.

The unarguable backbone of America's attraction to Marlboro cigarettes, however, remains the Marlboro cowboy. Men claim him as their own and want to live his life. In a 1995 Playboy two-page spread [Image 10] the Marlboro men share a secret with the masculine audience, "Behind every good story, there's a man who has lived it. Come to Marlboro Country." Young lifestyles also mesh with the "contemporary, confident, self-assured, daring, adventurous, mature"(White 124) cowboy. John Benson, former account executive for Leo Burnett, believes the "Marlboro cowboy dispels ...the myth [that] in order to attract young people you've got to show young people."(White 124). Women too are drawn to the masculine image. During the "Country Store" promotion, where the company advertises boots, spurs, hats and jackets in a catalog and order form, Benson relates a time when they received a letter from three women in Texas ordering a cowboy.(White 127)

From his first appearance as the "tattooed man" to present images where he races into the sunset on his horse with no more than a hint of what is being sold, the brand name or red package, the Marlboro man has weathered forty years of successful advertising[Image 11]. He has taught the public about filters, promoted the red flip-top box, sold gear and sympathized with each generation's sensibilities. He encompasses years of educational information about cigarette make, quality, and about the Marlboro company, in a single image and with the keenest brand identification to date. Selling a product that is deadly, in a market that is increasingly unforgiving and restricted, the Marlboro Man stands proud against the odds as an icon of rugged individualism and of an ideal lifestyle that appeals to all Americans.


  • Introduction
  • From "Mild as May" to "Tough as Shoeleather"
  • Marboro Man Meets the Surgeon General
  • Bibliography
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