Cowboy Advertising

marlboro-country-1970

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.

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