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

The iconic cowboy disappeared from television decades ago. But with the help of a Montana dude ranch, the cigarette company is keeping his legend alive.

marlboro-top.jpg Philip Morris Inc.

The invitation reached Rachel Munyon as she returned home to her California apartment one evening in December 2011. Ripping open the cardboard flap of the thick Fed-Ex express envelope, she pulled out a letter.

"Congratulations!" it read: she was a winner in Marlboro's "Rock the Ranch" sweepstakes. All she had to do was fill out the enclosed paperwork and submit to a background check, and she and one guest of her choice would be heading off on a four-day, all-expense-paid ranch vacation. "I just started screaming and freaking out and, like, jumping up and down," she told me.

Rachel called her boyfriend to share the news, and later that night, the two went out to dinner and completed the stack of forms. Several weeks later, they received a package with their finalized itineraries, round-trip plane tickets, a check for the associated taxes, and a pair of MasterCard gift cards to cover the cost of checking luggage. Then came a box holding two red-and-black wheeled duffel bags.

In February, the couple boarded a flight to southern Montana, wearing baseball caps emblazoned with the logo of the Crazy Mountain Ranch.They would join roughly a hundred other guests from across the country, some of the thousands who arrive each year for a luxury stay in the heart of the Rockies, courtesy of Philip Morris USA.

Though most of Marlboro's domestic tobacco is grown in the silt of Appalachia, the brand has long carried a flavor of the American West. The marketing concept goes back to the 1950s, when Philip Morris added filter tips to the product line in response to the first studies linking smoking and lung cancer. Early market research suggested that the public viewed filters as effective but effeminate, and Marlboro, which for decades had been sold as a premium ladies' cigarette, needed a way to stand out from a new set of competitors.

Philip Morris turned to the Chicago-based Leo Burnett agency, whose advertisers dropped Marlboro's price point and long-time "Mild as May" slogan, and staged a new campaign featuring icons of male autonomy: sun-cured men repairing cars, cleaning guns, cupping a flame in tattooed hands, or squinting into the distance over whirls of smoke.

Sales increased 3,241 percent in 1955, the year the new ads rolled out. Those featuring the cowboy -- "an almost universal symbol of admired masculinity," as Leo Burnett wrote to Philip Morris's advertising director in a letter outlining the campaign -- drew the strongest response.

By the early 1960s, just before the Surgeon General's advisory committee issued its verdict on the health risks of smoking, the theme had evolved into the mythical "Marlboro Country," where cowboys in white hats rode horseback between golden grass and blue skies, or sat around a campfire with an open red-topped pack posed next to the crackling flames. The message beckoned over airwaves and from newspaper pages: "Come to where the flavor is."

Then the ads disappeared -- first from broadcast media after Congress passed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act in 1970, and later from billboards and other outdoor spaces as part of the Master Settlement Agreement in the late 1990s. When the FDA won regulatory control over the tobacco industry a few years ago, the agency tightened limits on the sale of branded merchandise and banned sponsorships of sporting and entertainment events. Tobacco companies also pulled campaigns from many print publications to comply with rules against targeting youth.

As traditional advertising avenues were cut off one by one, Philip Morris started to develop more-direct methods of customer outreach. In the early 1970s, a Marlboro chuck wagon toured the state fair circuit, serving up sourdough biscuits and publicity. The next decade saw the development of the company's customer database, a repository of smoker information drawn from bar giveaways and event signups.

Then in the 1990s, with the Master Settlement looming and the lobby for FDA regulation underway, attention shifted to an emerging business strategy known as "relationship marketing." Where traditional marketing emphasized individual sales, this new model traded in human economics:investments in individual customers, through direct communication and rewards, could pay off in long-term loyalty and word-of-mouth promotion. And so, in the spirit of new enterprise, Marlboro again looked West.

***

Crazy Mountain Ranch is settled beneath the eponymous range -- named, legend goes, after a madwoman who disappeared in its jagged slopes during Westward expansion. Peaks cut into the sky like sawteeth. The ranch's lodge-pole entrance gate straddles grassy foothills about 30 miles northwest of Livingston, Montana, an hour and a half from the nearest commercial airport, at the end of a gravel road that curls like smoke around the rises. Nick Fullerton, the architect who designed the original guest facilities, says that the drive "takes you out of this world that we're in today, and kind of prepares you for the sight once you get there."

The dude operation, surrounded by 18,000 acres of secluded grassland and a working cattle outfit, was known as Deadrock Guest Ranch until Philip Morris bought the place from the publishing entrepreneur Glenn Patch in 2000. Patch had borrowed the name "Deadrock" from the fictional town in the novels of Tom McGuane -- who owns a ranch just over the county line -- for his own creative venture: a full-scale recreation of a 19th-century frontier settlement. He hired Fullerton for the task in the early 1990s. The architect's team hauled together the remains of a few crumbling homesteads on the property, and rigged new structures with reclaimed materials and antique furnishings scavenged from around the region. The town, which Philip Morris later expanded, features some 20 buildings -- including a saloon, a two-story hotel, and a stone jail -- with period facades hiding modern plumbing and electrical wiring.

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Sarah Yager is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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