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The Marlboro Man Still Sells Cigarettes


It’s one of branding’s eternal truisms that when you find an idea that works, you stick with it. It’s why fatherly CEO Dave Thomas appeared in over 800 TV spots for Wendy’s, why Aflac has stuck with the duck since 1999 and why Go Daddy has held tight to Danica Patrick’s bumper for 11 Super Bowl spots now. There’s a corollary to this rule, too. Once one brand discards a great idea, there’s nothing stopping a similar brand from taking it up. Case in point: the Marlboro Man and what looks like his kid brother in the ads here. But be it a tobacco smoke from the ‘50s or one of the many electronic alternatives on the market now, cigarette brands love associating themselves with the All-American bruiser.

“Cigarettes were always about being a rebel,” observes Gwenaëlle Gobé, creative director of marketing think tank Emotional Branding and a filmmaker who recently explored gender representations on American billboards in her film This Space Available. “The imagery connects because it’s an ideal,” Gobé said. “Who doesn’t want to be some version of the tough guy? This is what everybody demands men to be.”

This rugged but successful marriage between tough guys and cigs goes back to 1954 when Philip Morris introduced Marlboro as its first brand to feature a filter. Fearful that the foam tip would make the brand seem soft and feminine, the company hired legendary adman Leo Burnett, who understood that making Marlboro a real man’s smoke meant showing real men. While most people recall the Marlboro Man as a cowboy, he was actually a variety of characters for the first few years: mechanics, hunters and, like our hairy-chested friend here, a coach (ex-Navy at that, judging from the tattoo on his right hand). The hitch worked. By 1972, Marlboro was the best-selling cigarette brand on the planet.

Of course, all the muscles in the world weren’t enough to fight off the attorneys general in most every state in America. The $206 billion Master Settlement of 1999 sent the Marlboro Man riding off into the sunset. But good ideas are tough to kill—as this 2013 ad for Blu e-cigarettes demonstrates. “My intuition is that Blu purposely went to the Marlboro Man to give this ad the same look,” Gobé said. Even if the brand didn’t do that literally, the similarities are striking. Chances are you wouldn’t pick a fight with either of these dudes.

It’s anyone’s guess if the tough-guy image will work as well for Blu as it did for Marlboro. Blu is a battery-driven vapor generator that comes in flavors including Cherry Crush and Vivid Vanilla—facts that are a little tough to reconcile with the Brando-esque aura of our denim-clad stag here. Still, there’s no denying the logic of the presentation. “If you walked up to anyone who’s lived long enough, they can immediately conjure the Marlboro Man’s image and describe it to you,” Gobé said. “That icon is endless.”

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