Cowboy Advertising


There is a great story told in the Leo Burnett Advertising agency about how the boss created the Marlboro Cowboy campaign.  As with all ad agency stories, it has a smidgen of truth masking a lot of fuzzy reality.  The story is that Philip Morris invented a new cigarette, with a filter tip and a crush proof box.  Leo Burnett pointed out that the innovations would be copied within 6 months.  Instead he came back with an image of a rugged cowboy, and the legend of the Marlboro Cowboy was born.

The truth is that the tobacco companies were well aware of the health implications of cigarettes.  Filters were an approach to cleaning up their act.  But filters were seen as unmanly, they were for women.  Marlboro was originally marketed as being “Mild as May”.

Burnett realised that any concession to “health benefits” would simply raise the looming specter of the long term damaging effects of the product.  So he wanted to avoid talking about the filter.  To make the filter acceptable to men he designed a campaign that would show “manly men” smoking Marlboro.  The Cowboys were supposed to be followed by Sea Captains, Weightlifters, Construction workers.  Sort of like an early version of YMCA, a homoerotic muscle man revue (in retrospect anyway).

What happened is that the Cowboy succeeded beyond expectations, and you don’t fix what ain’t broke.  So the Cowboy became Marlboro.  Ad agencies never admit that their successes are accidental, but the truth is, you need a hefty dose of luck on top of all your good planning and design work to make an iconic campaign.

The cowboy is a symbol.  That is the secret of the success.  In the same way as we talk about the heart, but really mean love, when we talk about the cowboy we really mean freedom, adventure, excitement.  It is a male fantasy of escape from the drudgery of the job and the responsibilities of mortgage, bills and the hassles of family life.  This escape fantasy is personified by the cowboy, or the drover.  You will find it in the Banjo Patterson poem “Clancy of the Overflow”, Eric Bogle’s song “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” and in the Irish poem below.

The Drover; by Padraic Colum

To Meath of the pastures,
From wet hills by the sea,
Through Leitrim and Longford
Go my cattle and me.
I hear in the darkness
Their slipping and breathing.
I name them the bye-ways
They’re to pass without heeding.
Then the wet, winding roads,
Brown bogs with black water;
And my thoughts on white ships
And the King o’ Spain’s daughter.
O! farmer, strong farmer!
You can spend at the fair
But your face you must turn
To your crops and your care.
And soldiers—red soldiers!
You’ve seen many lands;
But you walk two by two,
And by captain’s commands.
O! the smell of the beasts,
The wet wind in the morn;
And the proud and hard earth
Never broken for corn;
And the crowds at the fair,
The herds loosened and blind,
Loud words and dark faces
And the wild blood behind.
(O! strong men with your best
I would strive breast to breast
I could quiet your herds
With my words, with my words.)
I will bring you, my kine,
Where there’s grass to the knee;
But you’ll think of scant croppings
Harsh with salt of the sea.

Where the grass is greener


The grass is always greener on the other side.  Far away hills are green.  Far away cattle have longer horns.  You can’t be a prophet in your own country.  Familiarity breeds contempt.

Our language is turgid with aphorisms, metaphors and maxims that cast warnings to those who would travel in search of a better life.  We are advised to look before we leap, for there is no place like home and home is where the hearth is.

And yet the impetus of wanderlust remains strong.  Country bumpkins dream of the bright lights of the big city, the big smoke replete with crowds, jobs, opportunities, noise, bustle, anonymity, rampant consumerism, flux and a frisson of danger, life in the fast lane.  City folk harken to a slower pace, an easier life, of simple pleasures, community, courtesy, living space, clean air and water, a green and pleasant land, a rural idyll, perhaps even a backwater.

City pad or an escape to the country?  What is your dream?  Do you want to be at the centre of a chic crowd of suave urbanites who work hard and party harder, or do you fancy a potter in the garden and making an apple tart with fruit from your own orchard?

Here is one of the great poems on this theme.  An Australian classic, about a drover who shares my name.  If you want to follow the fortunes of Clancy further you can find him in a poem entitled “Clancy’s Reply” and he also plays a starring role in another Paterson poem “The man from Snowy River”.

CLANCY OF THE OVERFLOW – A.B. “Banjo” Paterson


I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better

knowledge, sent to where I met him down the Lachlan, years ago,

he was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,

just “on spec”, addressed as follows: “Clancy, of The Overflow”.


And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected,

(and I think the same was written in a thumbnail dipped in tar)

’twas his shearing mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it:

“Clancy’s gone to Queensland droving, and we don’t know where he are.”


In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Clancy

gone a-droving “down the Cooper” where the western drovers go;

as the stock are slowly stringing, Clancy rides behind them singing,

for the drover’s life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.


And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him

in the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,

and he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,

and at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.


I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy

ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall,

and the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city

through the open window floating, spreads its foulness over all.


And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle

of the tramways and the buses making hurry down the street,

and the language uninviting of the gutter children fighting,

comes fitfully and faintly through the ceaseless tramp of feet.


And the hurrying people daunt me, and their pallid faces haunt me

as they shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste,

with their eager eyes and greedy, and their stunted forms and weedy,

for townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste.


And I somehow fancy that I’d like to change with Clancy,

like to take a turn at droving where the seasons come and go,

while he faced the round eternal of the cashbook and the journal –

but I doubt he’d suit the office, Clancy, of “The Overflow”.