The Real Marlboro Man

Darrell Winfield, star of the most successful campaign in tobacco history, sold the spirit of the cowboy to American men—and, surprisingly, women too.

A stereotypical Marlboro man billboard from 1997, displayed in Denver (Reuters)

The real Marlboro man died in Wyoming last month. Darrell Winfield, who modeled for the brand from 1968 to 1989, was the ideal poster child for the rugged, independent self-image Philip Morris wanted to sell its customers.* He was so perfect that when Draper Daniels (the inspiration for Mad Men's Don Draper), then-creative director of Leo Burnett Worldwide—the agency contracted to create the campaign—found Winfield on the Quarter Circle 5 Ranch he said, “I had seen cowboys, but I had never seen one that just really, like—he sort of scared the hell out of me.”

Born in eastern Oklahoma shortly before the Great Crash of 1929, Winfield soon migrated West with his family in the devastation of the Dust Bowl. As an adult, Winfield and his wife settled in the ochre, sloping prairie of Pinedale, Wyoming—not far from the border sign that welcomes visitors with the slogan “Forever West,” a proclamation as fanciful as “Come to where the flavor is. Come to Marlboro Country.”

Though there were dozens of Marlboro men over the years, the campaign recruits preceding Winfield were typically screen actors and professional models. Winfield was the real deal. He continued working on ranches well into his modeling career, eventually using his Philip Morris checks to move his family onto their own ranch in Riverton where they’ve lived ever since. And yet, an obituary in The Economist reflected on the non-domestic masculine fantasy that images like Winfield’s expressed: “No family tied the Marlboro Man down. He had no home, though he was once in a ramshackle shed, holding his tin cup out roughly for coffee… He epitomised resilience, self-sufficiency, independence and free enterprise.”

While nary a tobacco TV ad has aired since 1970, some might remember the moving image of a man on horseback, cloaked in a duster, charging across the snow-dusted prairie to that woodstove-heated shed, scenes that ended with the optimistic uptick of a violin. The print ads featured groups of chisel-faced wranglers sitting around a campfire, or a solo cowboy astride a horse, cupping his smoke against the bitter winds somewhere in the red rock deserts and high plains of an ambiguous American West.***

The Marlboro Man is the most powerful mascot in American tobacco marketing in history. Since 1972, Marlboro has been the most purchased cigarette brand in the U.S., with sales today of over $23 billion worldwide. But modern cowboys, it turned out, are by and large fictive. Most ranchers don’t smoke tobacco, but rather chew it—smoking a cigarette is physically intrusive if your day is occupied by continuous manual labor. In places like Wyoming, Winfield's resting place, the image of the white, adventuresome cowboy in chaps and kerchief, duking it out with Indians alone on the frontier, was cultivated by 19th Century Wild West Shows and used, in part, to entice eastern settlers—and since the early 20th century, ranching has fallen far behind the state's actual economic boon: energy extraction.

Prior to the cowboy campaign, Marlboro was considered a “women’s” cigarette. Their debut slogan in 1924 was “Mild As May.” Early ads presented black-and-white sketches of listless flappers, slouched over an ashtray at a bistro table—or a sultry profile of a Gibson girl whose dark lipstick remained unblemished after a drag. It wasn’t until the 1950s that, as a Stanford study put it, the brand underwent a “sex change.”

Until the late 1960s, all filtered cigarettes—Marlboro included—were considered feminine. Part of Marlboro's campaign mission, according to scholar Katherine West, was to convince male consumers that the filter did not change the (as one ad put it) “man-sized taste of honest tobacco.” While they originally concocted a campaign that presented a variety of macho archetypes, dubbed “the Tattooed Man”—construction workers, mechanics, Navy officers, weightlifters, all bearing a black hand tat suggesting a heroic though dissolute past—the cowboy was so successful that they soon abandoned the series and devoted all their energy to that single image of masculinity on the frontier.

Within a year of Marlboro Man's debut, the company went from holding only a one percent market share to being the fourth bestselling brand in America. America loved Marlboros: Sales hit $5 billion in 1955, an over 3000 percent increase over 1954—the year prior to the Marlboro Man campaign.

Prior to the Marlboro Man, cigarette branding centered more on the practical benefits of a cigarette—“Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet,” “More doctors smoke Camels,” and Marlboro’s early “Ivory tip protects your lips.” What the Marlboro Man campaign displays was a trend we still see in lifestyle branding today: the image of a person who the consumer aspires to be like, or already imagines he is—or in many cases, she.

“Right now the most popular brand among women is Marlboro,” says Pamela Ling, an associate professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco. “So even though you think of feminine brands [like] Virginia Slims and Capri and Misty, they’re actually a quite small market share.”

Fourteen years after masculinizing Marlboro, Philip Morris introduced the first brand that used the same kind of aspirational advertising specifically to women: Virginia Slims. But the marketing ploy didn't work the same way on female audiences, and thus during the early-90s recession Philip Morris contracted a series of "lifestyle analysis" studies in 1993 that sought to taxonomize the values of the “new young adult female smoker.”

“They recognized that you have one group that [they] called the 90s Traditionalists,” says Ling, “who are married and they’re bargain hunters. They’ll drive across town to use a coupon and they’re really into their family; but they will express their opinion if they disagree with a man. That was one group. There’s another group they called the Uptown Girls, which like to party and shop and really want to be on the cutting edge of fashion and go out to bars, and meet hot guys…” There were also the Wallflowers, who, in the official report are described, among other things, as “not cool/hip” and “not tough/rugged.”

And then there was another group, says Ling, that “they called the Mavericks, which are women who smoke Marlboro. These are women who are not into the feminine image. They are not interested in Virginia Slims or Capri or Misty. They are the women who smoke "the man’s cigarette." They’re very independent, don’t like to be told what to do, very pro-smoking…” The Philip Morris report also says that Mavericks “strongly value financial and personal independence” and are primarily “single, white, and employed part-time.”

But beyond their kitschy categories, Philip Morris ultimately found that all the categories of “new young adult female smokers” smoked Marlboro more than any other brand—and in most cases nearly ten times more than targeted brands like Virginia Slims. It would seem that the Marlboro Man struck a chord across even gender lines. Or maybe it had the ring of an earlier gendered message, one that was targeted to women.

Shortly before the brand’s 1924 introduction, there were still massive restrictions on where and how American women could smoke. While some of those restrictions were only tacitly held beliefs, it was only in 1908 that a woman was arrested in New York City for smoking in public. But it was also in New York City that Ed Bernays unleashed his enduring 1929 media stunt on an Easter Sunday Parade: He paid debutantes to march down Broadway and smoke their “Torches of Freedom!” Even feminist activist Ruth Hale got behind this stunt. “Women / Light another torch of freedom / Fight another sex taboo!”

“Individualism is a core value of American society,” says Ling, “and the whole idea that, ‘I can do this because it's legal and I choose to,’ is very much in line with many American beliefs. Saying that, ‘I choose to smoke, and it’s an expression of my freedom,’ is something that, again, the companies have worked for a long time to reinforce, and it’s something that they know has resonance."

Ling thinks that this framing is clever beyond just appealing to America's individualistic culture: "It also shields [the tobacco companies] from litigation because, if you started smoking because it was your choice, then if you get lung cancer it’s your fault. That’s a very different frame from, ‘There is a predatory industry that has manipulated your psychology to get you at a vulnerable time to start using an addictive product that you’ll then be unable to stop using, and they should be held responsible for that activity.’”

The marketing team at Philip Morris USA declined to comment for this article due to company policy that prohibits their discussion of marketing materials, campaigns, and demographic data—which have all been by and large declassified since the 1998 Master Settlement, and organized in public archives like the Legacy Tobacco Archive at UCSF. It would seem that Big Tobacco isn't ready to reflect on the past, even as smoking dips to historic lows.

On the eve of the Master Settlement—after the dust had settled around the Joe Camel scandals and the leaked insider documents that proved big tobacco was intentionally marketing to kids—Charles Leroux wrote in the Chicago Tribune about the imminent evisceration of the Marlboro Man from U.S. advertising: “That fascination [with the cowboy imagery] persists almost the way smoking persists in this country—in denial of the evidence, in the distinctly American belief in an Out There where an untenable position can somehow become a trail to a happy ending.”

The brand is full of paradox. Cowboys don’t smoke cigarettes. And the rodeo, that perceived re-enactment of white masculinity and the spiritual home of the Marlboro Man, finds its early antecedent in Indian equestrian activities. And more women smoke Marlboro than any other brand. So in spite of Phillip Morris’ attempt to create advertising that appealed to men, they ended up drawing in women, too—which means that the Marlboro Man campaign wasn’t about being a man after all: it was about being American—and maybe more specifically, a white American.

When Darrell Winfield died last month, he was still living on his ranch in Riverton—a municipality which actually sits within the Wind River Reservation on land that was ceded from Northern Arapahoe and Eastern Shoshone people in 1906.** And what’s more is that Winfield, a white American, actually practiced Plains Indian spirituality, maintaining a sweat lodge on his property where, his local obituary reports, all were welcomed. And he continued smoking Marlboro to his dying day, on a sovereign piece of land belonging to peoples whose ancestors cultivated tobacco in the first place.

* This article originally stated that Darrell Winfield modeled for Marlboro until 1987, rather than 1989. We regret the error.
** This article has been updated to clarify the way Winfield's Marlboro Man was portrayed and where his ranch is located.