Marlboro Man as skeleton?

March 29, 2001|By Abe Novick

I WORK IN the same industry that created the Marlboro Man. He's arguably the most powerful icon in advertising's history.

For me, there has always been a certain sense of antipathy toward him, and awe. Awe at the way in which a brand can come to personify so much more than just the product -- a cigarette -- but also represent a lifestyle. The Marlboro Man stands for the rugged individual, a man who longs for simpler times, a man searching for the chance to escape to the wide-open spaces of Marlboro Country. It's pretty much an idyllic American pastoral fantasy.

On the other hand, he represents death.

And if part of the definition of a brand is a promise, he lied. That same rugged cowboy with chiseled features and a cigarette dangling from his lips was also packing a far more dangerous weapon than his six-shooter.

It's what the cancer-stricken character Big Daddy, in Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," called "mendacity!"

Unquestionably, since the Marlboro Man first came on the scene, Philip Morris' own research showed the cowboy appealed to younger smokers who were looking for ways to show independence.

How morally ironic that the same agency who created the Marlboro Man, Leo Burnett, is responsible for the work we now see the Philip Morris Co. currently running advocating the dangers of smoking to minors.

But, in an era of deadly school shootings, marketing cigarettes to teens may not seem as serious a threat. Or is it?

Actually, those same young smokers grow up to become part of the 3.5 million people the World Health Organization says die each year of smoking-related ailments. The costs Americans spend annually on smoking-related health care total more than $50 billion, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

Like many kids growing up in the1960s, I was glued to television. The coolness of smoking was everywhere.

If there were crooks on TV, they smoked. A cop? Smoked. Funny how all of these same characters would also be sporting a gun. They seem to always go together, guns and smoke. Gunsmoke.

From the beginning, the tangled roots of this country have been wrapped in both. While sailing back to Europe, even Columbus knew. He watched his sailors unable to refrain from it. He saw then the nature of the addictive plant. The rest is American history.

Now, especially within the last decade, anti-tobacco forces are flexing their marketing muscle and fighting fire with fire. They are doing it with the very same kinds of branding techniques that attracted smokers in the first place.

But killing that which kills is a tough assignment, whether anti-drugs, anti-guns or anti-tobacco. Yet, just as a virus needs part of itself to create the antibody, so marketing, advertising and branding are needed to counter the messengers of death.

Many of us have been touched by the victims of lung disease, cancer and other smoking-related ailments. Yet, even with all of the knowledge we have, it's astounding and painful to watch today's youth lighting up.

Evidently, branding truly is a very powerful force. Creating and building an identity, a symbol for people to relate to, is part of how our minds work -- whether it's the flag, the cross or a cowboy.

What is first needed to counter a powerful negative message is a stance, an ethical sense of right. Then it takes the same kind of world-class strategic thinking and branding techniques that sell sneakers, Coca-Cola and cars.

If Maryland's tobacco war is to be won, it will be by a combination of a brilliant idea with a powerful execution that will eradicate a menace. After all, wars are fought with brilliant strategies and potent weapons. Similarly, brilliant ideas and powerful executions are what advertising campaigns are all about.

Abe Novick is senior vice president of strategic business development for Baltimore-based Eisner Communications.

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