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VIENNA -- The Marlboro man is back -- as a woman.

Following the example set by Hollywood star Sharon Stone in the Western feature film The Quick And The Dead, Marlboro woman is harder and faster than the boys.

The new commercial, which made its global debut in 4,000 cinemas across Germany on March 22, was created by Leo Burnett Co., the originator of the lone cowboy who became the world-famous Marlboro man.

The "Lady Mustang" spot shows what looks like a regular cowboy battling to control a particularly wild horse and winning the fight by lassoing the animal. It's only at the end that a close-up reveals that the cowboy is in fact a lipstick-wearing blonde woman.

"We simply want to surprise people," said Mike de Pauw, a director at Leo Burnett.

The appearance of a Marlboro woman -- whose identity is being kept closely under wraps -- is actually something of a return to the brand's roots. Until 1930, Marlboro was almost exclusively smoked by women. Marlboros were even sold in packets that were printed with beauty tips on the back.

It was with the invention of the Marlboro man that male smokers came to the brand.

Women make up nearly half of Marlboro smokers today, said Philip Morris Deutschland spokeswoman Beate Kunz.

"They identify with the ideas put forward by the Marlboro country concept -- freedom, self-confidence and adventure. What we are saying with this advert is that in Marlboro country there is space for many people, including women," she said.

Not that the new ad spells the end of the lone cowboy, she added. "There will always be male cowboys. But the world of Marlboro is more than a man on a horse and we want to show this diversity."

Reflecting this diversity, the Marlboro woman is just one of a series of seven new cinema ads aimed at presenting a new angle on the cowboy theme. "One of the others shows a cowboy doing a series of stunts on a horse, getting off and then thanking the horse for the ride," says Kunz.

The film ads are to be accompanied by new poster adverts, including one that replaces the L in Marlboro with a single, dusty cowboy boot.

Speculating on the future of the Marlboro woman, Markus Ruf, a Zurich-based media observer, mused: "I'm excited to see what will happen when perhaps the Marlboro cowgirl meets the Marlboro cowboy in the next advert. After 40 years alone in the desert, the guy must be pretty lonely."

Said Kunz: "We are not completely sure what the next ads will involve, but I can't see why the Marlboro woman couldn't meet Marlboro man at some stage."

Copyright March 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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