First, let's dispense with the product. Yes, yes, cigarettes are the most dangerous legal product in the world. They kill more people each year than do guns. And yes, yes, it is dreadful that the myth of independence is used to sell addiction. But never forget as well that it is exactly this danger that animates the Marlboro Man. He came into being just as smoking became problematic and, ironically, as long as anxiety exists, so will he.
Just as we drink the label, we smoke the advertising. So what's so smokable about this image? First, everything fits. The heading and the logotype fall naturally in place. The product name mediates between visual and verbal. Let's start with that name, Marlboro. Like so many cigarette brand names, it is English and elegant and, like its counterpart, Winston, deceptively vague. The ersatz PM crest at the apex of the "red roof" chevron on the package hints of a bloodline, and the latin motto "Veni, vidi, vici," tells of ancient warrior strength. The power is both in the pack and in the buckeroo -- the eponymous Marlboro Man. He is what we have for royalty, distilled manhood. Here's how he entered popular culture.
Philip Morris wanted their female cigarette, Marlboro, to be regendered, and Leo Burnett was just the man to do it. Miss Marlboro was a "sissy smoke . . . a tea room smoke," Burnett said. Although she had been in and out of production for most of the century, in her most recent incarnation she came with a red filter tip (called the "beauty tip," to hide lipstick stains) and a long-running theme: "Mild as May." Men wouldn't get near her. Nor would many women.
In December 1954, Burnett took Miss Marlboro out to his gentleman's farm south of Chicago and invited some of his agency cohorts over to brainstorm. Something had to be done to put some hair on her chest. "What is the most masculine figure in America?" Burnett asked. "Cab driver, sailor, marine, pilot, race car driver," came the replies. Then someone said, "Cowboy." Bingo! Copywriter Draper Daniels filled in the blank: this smoke "Delivers the goods on flavor."
But these admen were not thinking of some dirty, spitting, toothless, smelly cowboy from south of the border. They were city boys who knew cowboys in bronzes and oils by Frederic Remington, and had read about them in Zane Grey's countless novels. Leo Burnett had just the image in mind. He remembered seeing one C. H. Long, a 39-year-old foreman at the JA ranch in the Texas panhandle, a place described as "320,000 acres of nothing much," who had been heroically photographed by Leonard McCombe for a 1949 cover of Life. Bingo again! A real enough cowboy.
The wrist tattoo completes the image. Not on the biceps where it would be decoded as Charles Atlas manliness, but on the back of the smoking hand where it showed independence.
Many people thought that by removing the Marlboro man from television in the early 1970s (remember the surging samurai strains of the theme song from The Magnificent Seven?) the Feds would send him into the sunset. No such luck. You can take down all the billboards and even remove him from magazines. "Just a little dab" of this rhetoric "will do ya."
My favorite Marlboro dab is an English ad. Scene: a Harleyesque motorcycle set out in the bleak Western plains. Only color in the bleached scene is that the gas tank is Marlboro red. In art lingo, this trope is called metonymy. Metonymy transfers meaning because the host image, the Marlboro cowboy, is embedded so deep not just in American culture but in world culture that we close the circuit. Ironically, slow learners are helped by the appearance of the warning box telling you that smoking is dangerous! The Marlboro Man may indeed be Dracula to his foes, but he is still the perfect icon of adolescent