The Truth about the Marlboro Man


By David Michael Newstead.

As the show Mad Man comes to an end, it’s worth considering one of the most iconic advertising campaigns of all time – the Marlboro Man. For decades, this image of a rugged American cowboy was used to sell cigarettes until the campaign was discontinued in 1999. Throughout that time, the Marlboro Man became culturally synonymous with masculinity, a legacy that persists to this day.

However, there are two inconvenient truths about this cultivated image of manhood. On one hand, it’s well-known that many of the actors who portrayed the Marlboro Man suffered from smoking related illnesses that led to their deaths. What’s less well-known though is that from its launch in 1924 until 1954, Marlboro was actually a women’s cigarette far removed from any macho mythology.

The reason?

At the time, filtered cigarettes like Marlboro were considered to be safer and also feminine. And for thirty years, that’s how the product was marketed. Then in the 1950s, the tobacco industry sought to convert men to filtered cigarettes as smoking came under increased public scrutiny. Marlboro’s unique masculine approach set it apart from its competitors and led to meteoric success for a formerly minor cigarette brand. Sales skyrocketed by 300 percent for a product that was essentially the same as before. In fact, the first episode of Mad Men draws from these events, showing advertisers avoiding any discussion of health concerns and instead working to distract consumers.

For Marlboro specifically, that meant trying to pull off a kind of gender jiu-jitsu, transforming the soft and feminine into the uber-masculine in people’s minds in just a few months. Forever after, Marlboro’s weren’t just acceptable for a man to smoke – they were the very height of masculinity! Timeless. Quintessential. Cowboys had always loved Marlboro’s, one might think…

This would be like rugged manly men suddenly deciding that smoking Virginia Slims was super macho. And perhaps such gender divides are as artificial and manufactured as the advertisements they’re based on. But in this case, it’s possible to look back to clearly see just how artificial those distinctions can really be.