Can anyone envision a more suitable American pitchman than a cowboy? The hardened demeanor. The thousand-yard stare. The life that hearkens back to rugged survival and unsettled frontiers. It’s no wonder that millions of Americans were drawn to the Western genre in film and TV — it is, after all, a romanticized account of a time in this country’s history. And if the sight of John Wayne and Gary Cooper in 10-gallon hats can usher folks into a multiplex in droves, surely a reasonable facsimile can hawk a pack of smokes with equal flair.
That was the notion dreamt up by ad exec Leo Burnett in 1954. The Don Draper of his day, Burnett devised the mascots for Green Giant (GIS), Froot Loops (K), 9Lives (DLM), and 7 Up (PEP), among many others. Employed by Philip Morris — rebranded as Altria (MO) in 2003 — to inject new life into Marlboro, Burnett transformed the brand’s female-targeted slogan “Mild as May” into something more substantial and electrifying.
Burnett was inspired by a spread in a 1949 issue of Life magazine focused on a ranch foreman by the name of C.H. Long. Weathered purveyor of such pithy summations of masculinity like “If it weren’t for a good horse, a woman would be the sweetest thing in the world,” Long exemplified Burnett’s new direction and cash cow for Philip Morris: the Marlboro Man.
Dedicated to a harsh but simple life in the mountains or open plains, the Marlboro Man symbolized the freedom of having a good smoke after a filling meal or a long day at work. Through the years, Philip Morris signed several actors to lend a face to the Marlboro Man’s tough image — only to find that an image based on weather exposure, improper diet, and carcinogens could lend itself to the occasional health issue.
Wayne McLaren, David McLean, and Dick Hammer — three actors who appeared in the Marlboro Man ads — were diagnosed with lung cancer and each eventually succumbed to the disease. After McLaren learned he had cancer, he became a renegade for anti-tobacco legislation and appeared in an ad against smoking on his deathbed. Paired with an image of him as a vibrant cowboy, the sickly McLaren presented a sobering lesson of what a life of smoking could render. Adding insult to injury, Philip Morris denied that McLaren ever appeared in a Marlboro ad — only changing its tune after McLaren uncovered a pay stub for a Marlboro print ad and had his talent agency write an affidavit confirming his work.
Like McLaren, David McLean became an anti-smoking advocate. After his death, his family went on to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Philip Morris for encouraging David to smoke in his Marlboro role — a situation that was fictionalized in the tobacco satire Thank You for Smoking.
As awareness of the dangers of smoking grew and cigarette ads were banned from the television airwaves, the Marlboro Man was relegated to print and billboard ads, eventually fading from public view. The high-profile deaths of three pitchmen hired to promote cigarettes prevented legitimate glorification of the Marlboro Man — an irony too poignant to be ignored.
Today, vintage Marlboro ads might conjure a touch of nostalgia, but the shock as to how Americans could ever be suckered into it is far more palpable.