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

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."

Her experience reflects a changing market, one that clouds the outlook for cigarette promotions like the ranch. "The rate of cigarette smoking in the United States has been declining for over 30 years, and we expect that it will continue to decline," David Sylvia told me. A recent Gallup poll found that just one in five adults reported smoking in the previous week. That rate that has never been lower -- it's less than half of what it was when Marlboro's cowboy first gazed past the camera. Philip Morris's cigarette sales flat-lined last year, just above a three percent industry-wide decline.

In October 2011, with business flagging, Altria announced a plan to cut $400 million in costs, primarily in "cigarette-related infrastructure," by the end of this year. Opportunity is rich overseas: in 2008, Altria spun off its foreign operations to free them of U.S. legal and image entanglements, and Philip Morris International has been reaching into markets like China, where some 40 percent of the world's cigarettes are produced and smoked.

But "cigarette smoking still is legal in this country," Sylvia said, "and Philip Morris USA will continue to try to market in a responsible way so that when adults who do smoke decide which brands to choose, that they'll choose Marlboro."

Along with the rest of the industry, Philip Morris has been emphasizing the small but growing smokeless category, and some companies are expanding into new territory altogether (Lorillard, one of Altria's major competitors, recently purchased a company that manufactures electronic cigarettes). According to Sylvia, "One of our goals is to find ways to reduce the harm related to tobacco use. What that means for the long term, for the Marlboro brand, and thus the Marlboro ranch? It's hard to say."

The pursuit of free land in the West is, after all, a dated idea. The U.S. Census Bureau declared the frontier closed in 1890, and the Crazy Mountain Ranch is marked with the footprints of earlier pioneers: stretched out in the southern shadow of the Crazies, where William Clark passed on his return journey from the Pacific coast, its buildings raised from fallen ones. But for now, the parties and the promise carry on in Marlboro Country, as the sun burns down into the western horizon, glowing orange and then extinguished.

Presented by

Sarah Yager is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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