July 23, 2010

Marlboro Man

Speaking of unfortunate ways to be remembered, yesterday was the anniversary of the 1992 death of Wayne McLaren. While McLaren’s name might not be immediately recognizable, his cultural legacy is enormous. He was a Marlboro Man—one of Philip Morris’s irrepressible symbols of independence and carefree western living. Unfortunately, like fellow Marlboro Man David McLean, he died of lung cancer.

Marlboro Man

n. The American cowboy character used in advertising campaigns for Marlboro cigarettes. Hence allusively (freq. humorously): a rugged, self-sufficient, ostentatiously masculine man.
Oxford English Dictionary

The great irony of all of the testosterone surrounding Marlboro cigarettes is that they were originally designed for women. Starting in the 1920s, Marlboros were marketed as a premium smoke for the gentler sex to enjoy—their “ivory tips protect the lips”—while men puffed a heftier brand after dinner. The campaign failed.

The situation didn’t improve much in the 1950s when a report first linking smoking to cancer drove many companies to produce filtered cigarettes. Philip Morris tried to reintroduce Marlboros as its filtered offering, but the feminine legacy remained, and many smokers considered filters to be unmanly. Enter the Leo Burnett advertising company. According to one company legend, Burnett himself once asked a room of writers what was the most masculine image they could think of. “A cowboy,” one said. And a marketing legend was born.

There were many Marlboro Men used for the television, magazine, and billboard campaign that started in the mid-1950s. All seemed like rugged outdoorsmen, often found hunting and fishing, but the company settled on cowboys by the 1960s, even going so far as using the rousing theme from The Magnificent Seven for its TV ads. Many of the models were the real deal, including Wayne McLaren who was a professional rodeo rider before becoming a Marlboro Man in 1976.

Smoking would eventually take a hit from its celebrity cowboys. John Wayne started doing public service announcements for the American Cancer Society in the 1970s, and, nine months before his death from lung cancer in 1985, Magnificent Seven star Yul Brynner filmed a commercial urging people not to smoke. And then there were the Marlboro Men.

Wayne McLaren smoked a pack and a half a day for most of his life and was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1990. Before his death in 1992, McClaren produced an anti-smoking commercial that juxtaposed his Stetson-wearing younger self with shots of his current hospitalization, and he petitioned the Massachusetts legislature to use cigarette taxes for health education. One year later, David McLean (one of the Marlboro Men from the early 1960s) had a tumor removed from his lung. He died in 1995.

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