Marlboro Man was a character used to advertise Marlboro cigarettes starting in 1954. He became a cliché of a rugged man, often shown on horseback with a cowboy hat and some rope, confidently smoking a cigarette, and was portrayed by several different actors until 1999. However, the origin of this famous ad campaign isn’t as well known.
Before the manly Marlboro Man manifested in 1954, Marlboro was sold as a feminine cigarette, with a red-colored filter at the tip. Ads had phrases like “Ivory Tips Protect the Lips,” and touted that lipstick on the cigarette wouldn’t matter since it was red anyway. But later, when the health risks of cigarette smoking came to light, Philip Morris & Co. wanted to sell Marlboro to men on the idea that filters made smoking “safer.” However, given Marlboro’s feminine image – created through advertising – Philip Morris had to overcome that connotation, so the red tips were removed, and Marlboro Man was born as a way to sell Marlboro cigarettes to men concerned about lung cancer and other health risks.
With hindsight, we know that filters don’t make smoking safer. Ironically, and sadly, five different men who appeared in Marlboro advertisements died of smoking-related diseases, earning Marlboro cigarettes the nickname “cowboy killers.”
Also with hindsight, we can see the massive power of advertising to shape our perceptions. The Marlboro Man campaign is considered in the ad industry to be one of the best of all time, changing a “feminine” product into one of stereotypical masculinity almost overnight. But the campaign also shows us that “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death”, as Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25 say. In this case, it was very literal death in this world.
To make Philip Morris money, the ads declared that smoking was not a “way to death,” but that it was “right to a man” to be like the Marlboro Man. It’s not entirely unlike the line “the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist,” which was spoken by Kevin Spacey’s character in the 1995 movie, The Usual Suspects. This line was a paraphrase of a line at least as old as the 1850’s.
I recently heard a sermon where the pastor said, “the culture is trying to kill you,” and I don’t think it was an exaggeration. Just as Marlboro ads first convinced people it was a feminine product, then turned on a dime to convince people it was a masculine product, without any real change to what was being sold, we’re all bombarded by dangerous messages every day, and many will only be seen in the broader culture as dangerous with the benefit of hindsight. Smoking used to be considered normal.
I’m not writing this to condemn smokers, because we all have our bad habits, but to spotlight the importance of an eternal perspective. Any culture is limited to the perspective of its leaders in that time and circumstance, and the pull of peer pressure is real. Every culture in this world has “a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death,” but also every culture needs the gospel more than it needs effective advertising campaigns.
Therefore, as the apostle Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3:8-9 – “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.”
Marlboro Man needs the good news of the gospel, not condemnation.
2 thoughts on “Marlboro Man Needs the Gospel”
Marlboro Man has an interesting backstory. And, yes, he definitely needs the good news of the gospel!
Good cultural connections… I remember those ads from way back when I was a kid. And The Usual Suspects is a well made movie in my opinion. Every culture and every sub-culture has sinful aspects. God is calling people from every nation tribe and tongue. Perhaps in the renewed Earth some of our non-sinful cultural differences will remain, but we won’t hate each other. I’m looking forward to that beauty and diversity.
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