The Marlboro Man

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He was the Most Influential Man Who Never Lived.  Though there were many Marlboro Man models over time until 1999 (factoid: but only three of them succumbed to lungs cancer), the original inspiration for the Philip Morris cigarette advertising campaign came through Life magazine photographs by Leonard McCombe from 1949.

Clarence Hailey Long (above) was a 39-year-old, 150-pound foreman at the JA ranch in the Texas panhandle, a place described as “320,000 acres of nothing much.” Once a week, Long would ride into town for a store-bought shave and a milk shake. Maybe he’d take in a movie if a western was playing. He was described as “as silent man, unassuming and shy, to the point of bashfulness [with a] face sunburned to the color of saddle leather [with cowpuncher’s] wrinkles radiating from pale blue eyes.” He wore “a ten-gallon Stetson hat, a bandanna around his neck, a bag of Bull Durhamtobacco with its yellow string dangling from his pocket, and blue denim, the fabric of the profession”. He said things like, “If it weren’t for a good horse, a woman would be the sweetest thing in the world.” He rolled his own smokes.

When the cowboy’s face and story appeared in LIFE in 1949, advertising exec Leo Burnett had an inspiration. Philip Morris, which had introduced Marlboro as a woman’s cigarette in 1924, was seeking a new image for the brand. The image managed to transform a feminine campaign, with the slogan “Mild as May”, into one that was masculine in a matter of months. The “Marlboro Cowboy” and “Marlboro Country” campaigns based on Long boosted Marlboro to the top of the worldwide cigarette market and Long to the top of the marriage market: Long’s Marlboro photographs led to marriage proposals from across the nation, all of which he rejected.

By the time the Marlboro Man went national in 1955, sales were at $5 billion, a 3,241% jump over the previous year. Over the next decade, Burnett and Philip Morris experimented with other manly types — ball players, race car drivers and rugged guys with tattoos (often friends of the creative team, sporting fake tattoos); all worked, but the Marlboro Man worked the best. By the time the first article linking lung cancer to smoking appeared in Reader’s Digest in 1957, the Marlboro sales were at $20 billion. Before the Marlboro Man, the brand’s U.S. share stood at less than 1%, but in 1972 (a year after the cigarette ads were banned from American televisions) it became the No. 1 tobacco brand in the world.