Imagination and animation give rise to most memorable selling symbols, but a real cowboy inspired the most effective icon in advertising history. In 1949 Life magazine published a picture of Clarence Hailey Long, 39, a foreman at the 320,000-acre JA Ranch in Texas. This rugged image lodged itself in the creative minds working at Chicago advertising agency Leo Burnett Worldwide, where the Marlboro Man was born five years later as a marketing solution.
Originally English, Marlboro cigarettes had existed since 1883. The Philip Morris Co. registered the U.S. trademark in 1908 and began marketing the “mild as May” brand to well-born ladies in 1924. But by the 1950s, emerging cancer concerns prompted many smokers to switch to filtered cigarettes, which were hardly macho. Femininity already saddled Marlboro’s image when it became the company’s first filtered brand; now its reputation as a sissy smoke was assured. With a market share of less than 1 percent, could it survive?
Cue the testosterone. In a legendary brainstorming session, Leo Burnett asked his staff to name the most masculine images they could think of. “Cowboy” was No. 1. The Marlboro men who went national in 1955 also portrayed other manly trades: hunters, fishermen, construction workers. That year sales leapt 3,241 percent to $5 billion.
By 1957 business was booming; so were cancer fears. Marlboro execs experimented with other approaches, one featuring chanteuse Julie London. But in the early ’60s, brand manager Jack Landry returned to cowboys, this time focusing on place: Marlboro County, where a man was free in his own simple world, riding off into the sunset while The Magnificent Seven theme song played. By 1972 Marlboro was the world’s best-selling tobacco brand.
Cigarette commercials were banned in 1971, but Marlboro men brandished their smokes in print and outdoor media. Unlike their predecessors, reputed to be agency associates with fake tattoos, these models were often real cowboys. Oklahoman Darrell Winfield was a primary model then; New York Giants quarterback Charley Conerly was also said to be pictured.
Probably the best-known—though less seen—Marlboro men were the real smokers who contracted lung cancer. Wayne McLaren, a rodeo rider featured in ’70s print ads, became an anti-smoking activist, making TV commercials that juxtaposed his cowboy images with hospital images taken before he died in 1992. After David McLean, who appeared in ’60s print and TV ads, died in 1995, his heirs filed a wrongful death suit against Philip Morris.
When U.S. tobacco companies agreed in 1998 to limit advertising, Philip Morris banished the Marlboro Man from billboards and magazine covers. But in 180 countries, his legend survives. In fact, he has surpassed life; last October, he topped USA Today’s list of the 101 most influential people who never lived.
Cathy Madison wrote about the RCA Victor dog Nipper in the March/April 2007 issue of the magazine.