Welcome to Marlboro Country: Philip Morris Stakes a Last Claim in the West

Depending on the season, daytime activities at the ranch include trips to nearby Yellowstone Park, skeet shooting, river rafting, scenic horseback rides, and cross-country skiing. During their winter visit, Rachel and her boyfriend mushed a dog sled, rode a zip line between stands of Ponderosa pines, and spent a day snowmobiling on the upper bounds of the property. "I was calling my mom every day saying, I can't believe this, it's getting better!" she said. After gourmet dinners, guests gathered for parties in the saloon with live music, entertainment, and an open bar. One night,employees built a bonfire on an outdoor patio and passed out skewers of chicken and rattlesnake meat, while wood and tobacco plumes twisted toward the stars.

***

Rachel discovered the Crazy Mountain Ranch eight years ago, when she turned 21 and logged onto Marlboro's Web site for the first time. She'd started smoking Marlboro Menthols when she was 17, but Philip Morris, like all the major U.S. tobacco companies, restricts direct marketing communications to smokers 21 or older -- a voluntary measure, according to the company, to prevent contact with an underage audience. (The site's age-verification form, which requires each visitor to enter his or her name, address, last four social-security digits, and preferred smoke or smokeless product, is also a funnel to the mailing list.)

On the site, Rachel came across a gallery of ranch photos, showing people having fun against a backdrop of beautiful scenery. She had never been to Montana, but had always loved Western movies and cowboys. The site shared few details about how to visit, though, and none of the friends or family members she asked had heard about the place. Then out one night in early 2011, she met a guy whose girlfriend had won a trip and brought him along. He raved about the experience, and Rachel was mesmerized. She scoured the web for information in past winners' blogs, and started placing daily calls to Marlboro's 800 number, bombarding the customer service representatives with her interest in going.After almost a year of persistence, she received a form for the limited-entry Rock the Ranch sweepstakes.

Marlboro selects other winners straight from the customer database, in a process David Sylvia, a spokesman for Altria Group -- the parent company of Philip Morris USA -- would describe only as "more thought than randomness." Mike, an IT consultant from Alabama whose friend Shawn received an unsolicited invitation seven years ago and invited him as a guest, thought at first that the offer must be a scam. Shawn had signed up for a Marlboro promotion at a bar one night in college, about 10 years before, but had since quit smoking. Now he was being offered the vacation of a lifetime, for free?

"It sounded too good to be true," Mike told me. "There's a catch. We're going to get out there, and they're going to try to sell us a timeshare, or there's going to be some brainwashing session for Philip Morris." He completed the required paperwork and packed his things in the red luggage that arrived one day in the mail. But, he said, "I think I was still skeptical until we got on the plane."

He arrived at the ranch to find scarcely a trace of the Marlboro brand.The ranch property isn't exempt from federal or state regulations, like the law that any object featuring the brand -- right down to the dinner menus -- must also carry a warning from the Surgeon General. But Philip Morris also seems to avoid subtler opportunities to push their products,even asking employees who smoke to take cigarette breaks in an alley between buildings, out of guests' sight.

Mike's suspicions faded as he shot clay pigeons, tried out a branding iron, and hiked with Shawn through the mountains. "In retrospect, and prior, certainly, to going on the trip, I just kept going over in my mind: what could possibly be their motive for doing this?" he said. "During the trip itself, it was not really something that was on your mind, just because you're having so much fun."

This hands-off approach, of course, has its own marketing role. Tobacco companies have traditionally hitched their brands to abstract concepts, appealing to the desires and aspirations of their intended audiences as much as to their taste preferences. Relationship marketing, which exploded at the close of the 20th century, presented an opportunity to relate those ideas without the frame of a television screen or magazine spread. Camel targeted its base of trend-conscious urbanites with a "VIP Club" whose members could access special travel deals and product discounts. Virginia Slims, whose cigarettes were usually featured in ads dangling from the fingertips of attractive, fashionable young women, solicited sweepstakes entries for a $50,000 shopping spree.

Marlboro bought up acreage. "One of the core elements of the Marlboro brand are these ideas of spirit, freedom, and adventure," Sylvia said. "The goal of the ranch out in Montana is to really allow the consumers to really experience those elements firsthand."

Internal documents made public as part of the Master Settlement Agreement explain Marlboro's own stake. In the two years prior to the purchase of the Crazy Mountain Ranch, Philip Morris had rented Patch's land -- along with another ranch in Montana's Gallatin Valley and a third in Arizona -- for occasional smoker promotions. Company communications discussing future marketing strategies refer to the success of the ranch promotions in developing loyalty and conversation among those most coveted demographic groups: young smokers and their friends.

"This program generated news and excitement among young adult smokers," one executive wrote to Marlboro's vice president in a memo discussing the planned ranch purchase. According to post-trip surveys, ranch visits increased the likelihood that both winners and guests -- particularly those between 21 and 29 -- would purchase Marlboro in the future. Trip winners also went on to purchase Marlboro significantly more often than other types of cigarettes. The vast majority of visitors reported leaving the ranch with an improved image of the brand, and a high likelihood of telling their friends back home about the experience. (Both winners and guests must be 21 or older to be eligible for the trip, but Sylvia declined to comment on whether the invitations target young customers in particular.)

Marlboro has become the top player in the American tobacco market -- controlling 43 percent of retail as of 2012 -- with a strong base of young and loyal customers. Marty Barrington, the CEO of Altria Group, announced at a consumer conference last fall that Marlboro had outscored every major competitor for brand equity -- a measure of customers' likelihood to choose a product over similar options in the marketplace.

He also highlighted the "excellent demographics" of Marlboro smokers: the brand's share of 21- to 29-year-olds is higher than those of the two largest competitors combined. While the approximate retail value for sweepstakes prizes in the last few years has been roughly $5,000, a single pack-a-day smoker can contribute tens of thousands of dollars to Big Tobacco's coffers over a lifetime, even after discounting federal and state taxes -- and before adding revenue from new customers drawn in by extension.

And if the Crazy Mountain Ranch offers Marlboro rare sanctuary from pressures beyond the fence, it does no less for those who visit. Most states have passed laws against lighting up in restaurants, workplaces, or bars. Smokers are gouged by excise taxes while their habit is decried by public health campaigns. In the frontier town, cigarette smoke is invisible in ubiquity -- a relief, for some, from attention off the property, which may threaten sales more than any advertising ban. Although Rachel said she understands the social stigma against smoking, and doesn't plan to be a smoker for the rest of her life, she enjoyed the brief respite offered by the Crazy Mountain Ranch."If I'm out shopping, [or] leaving a restaurant, I don't smoke till I get to my car," Rachel said. "Because you do get looked at a lot. It's hard."

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Sarah Yager is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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