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Manifest Destiny

by Jennifer Kabat

A regular column for frieze.com looks at past icons of design. This week: the Marlboro Man

In the US we like our cowboys, and the American West has always been part of our personal myth making. We like our spaces vast and our cowboys period. We elected two pretend ones as president (brush-clearing is not ranching, Dubya), and the number could easily extend to three if you count Teddy Roosevelt with his ‘walk tall and carry a big stick’ mentality. The West has always been our stick—or perhaps our carrot – and it’s been that way for more than a century now.

With their kitsch plays on national fantasies, Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Remington may well be America’s equivalent of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, but they played an active part in advertising the American West. People would line up to see their paintings and in them saw manifest destiny made, well, manifest; in those big spaces and big skies, people saw their future and the land of possibility. The paintings worked hand in glove with the Westward Ho of imperialistic expansion and it should be no surprise that such images were recycled into easily the most popular ad campaign of the twentieth century.

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Frederic Remington, A Dash for Timber (1889)

The Marlboro Man didn’t start out as a man, however: when the brand launched in the 1920s it was a woman’s cigarette – strap-line,  ‘Mild as May’. In the ‘30s, Marlboro came out with red tips so that women could avoid the embarrassment of lipstick-stained cigarettes.  Then the brand disappeared altogether—it just wasn’t successful enough. But then, in the early ‘50s, prompted by rumours of smoking’s dangers, consumers turned to filtered cigarettes.  Cue Marlboro. It wasn’t even on the market at the time and had never been filtered, but rather than launch a new brand Philip Morris decided to reintroduce Marlboro with a filter tip. Only problem? The name was a bit posh, the brand feminine and the filter unmanly. Put that all together and you get ciggies for sissies. Naturally this was a dilemma for the admen (they were all men in 1953) to solve.

In 1953 famous Chicago advertiser Leo Burnett was recruited to save the failing smokes. The Saturday just before Christmas he hosted a brainstorming session in his home where he hit upon the idea of the cowboy as the symbol of all things macho.

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1957 Marlboro advertisement

Before there was the Marlboro Man, though, there was the ‘Tattooed Man’. In all the ads he sported a tattoo on his hand, often drawn on for the picture, and different guises included sailors, tennis players and pilots. By 1955, just a year after the campaign’s launch, Marlboro’s sales rose to $5 billion—an increase of more than 3000 percent. The gain was temporary as was the Tattooed Man’s tenure; trouble arose a couple years later when Reader’s Digest ran an exposé linking smoking to lung cancer. Philip Morris dumped the man in favour of singer Julie London and her paramours, feeling that Marlboro needed a feminine voice to both rebuild trust and associate the brand with a fantasy of wealth.

The Marlboro Man returned in the early 1960s. Neil McBain, an art director at Chicago-based agency Leo Burnett, was in Texas scouting locations for a soap commercial, and, there at the 6666 Ranch, he found Carl ‘Bigun’ Bradley smoking Kools. Bradley was recruited as the new face of Marlboro, riding, rustling and smoking to the soundtrack of The Magnificent Seven (1960) theme.  Marlboro Country was born, a mythic place resplendent with fresh air, vitality and freedom—all things with which smoking (and its attendant health risks) wanted to be associated.

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Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy) (1989)

Jack Landry, Marlboro’s brand manager at the time, has said: ‘In a world that was becoming increasingly complex and frustrating for the ordinary man, the cowboy represented an antithesis – a man whose environment was simplistic and relatively pressure-free. He was his own man in a world he owned.’ By the early ‘70s, it was hard for that man to be his own. The US banned cigarette ads on TV and Marlboro Country relocated to posters, billboards and print ads, which were, of course, Richard Prince’s territory. Working in the tear-sheet department at Time Life, at the end of every day all that Prince was left were ads – which included many, many smoking cowboys. And there he found his subject. His work rephotographing the ads exposed the fantasies of masculinity, virility and space they touted just as they were reaching their end-point in American advertising. Prince’s repurposed images set auction records in 2005, just two years after Philip Morris had been rechristened as the more benign-sounding Altria.

Last month Altria spun off their American division. Cigarette sales just don’t represent enough expansion opportunity in the States, and the American imperialism implicit in the imagery of Marlboro Country, of Bierstadt and Remington’s open spaces, is moving onto the rest of the world. They represent the new frontier for the Marlboro Man; manifest destiny will go east. In a book rating the power of our mythic figures, The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived (2006), the Marlboro Man came in at number one despite never being just a single character. There was no consistency in those who represented him other than their square jaws and leathery skin. Over the years he’s been played by many cowboys and actors (but no president alas) and, not surprisingly, a few actual Marlboro Men died of complications from smoking.

About the author

  • Jennifer Kabat's photo

    Jennifer Kabat is a design critic based in New York.