The Marlboro Man has become an iconic character in tobacco advertising history, yet the trademark ‘Marlboro’ existed for half a century before the cowboy first rode into Marlboro Country. During those decades, much of Marlboro’s marketing was aimed at women, with commercials that depicted young women smoking and movie star endorsements.
What drove the popularity of smoking for women, and how did we go from beautiful women smoking on posters, to the Marlboro Man cowboy character we know today? In this article, we’ll take a look at the timeline of female smoking culture in the US, the history of 20th century Marlboro marketing, and how it all added up to a modern market where both women and men shop cigars.
WOMEN AND SMOKING
Black and White Portrait of Glamorous Woman Smoking Cigarette and Dressed in Vintage Clothing, Head and Shoulders Portrait in 1940s Film Noir Style
‘Smoking women’ culture dates back to the very origins of the global tobacco industry, and it was not unusual to see young women smoking cigarettes in Victorian England. In 1846, Philip Morris opened a tobacco shop on Bond Street in London, the first location of what would eventually become Philip Morris International, owner of the Marlboro brand worldwide to this day.
In 1873, Philip Morris died. His widow Margaret and brother Leopold continued the business, expanding to a factory on Great Marlborough Street — the inspiration behind the name Marlboro. By 1902, the company opened its first UD subsidiary, and the trademark ‘Marlboro’ was registered in 1908. The Marlboro brand was launched in its own right in 1924.
By that time, Philip Morris & Co had marketed a brand with the British spelling ‘Marlborough’ as a “ladies’ favorite” for nearly 40 years. Marketing for the new Marlboro brand in the US continued with a red filter that promised to deliver a smoother smoking experience while hiding lipstick stains. The slogan ‘Mild as May’ was adopted, with the actress Mae West becoming the face of Marlboro’s commercials.
In the same year that the Marlboro trademark was registered in the US, the New York City board of aldermen passed the Sullivan Ordinance. Proposed by Timothy ‘Little Tim’ Sullivan, the municipal law banned managers of public places, such as hotels and restaurants, from allowing women to smoke on their premises.
The ordinance said nothing about male smokers and was vetoed just two weeks later by the city mayor George B McClellan Jr, but not before Katie Mulcahey was fined $5 for smoking in a prohibited place. She refused to pay and was arrested on January 22nd, 1908, the day after the law was enacted, before being released the following day.
According to reports, the arresting officer said: “Madam, you mustn’t – what would Alderman Sullivan say?” to which Mulcahey replied: “Well I am, and I don’t know.” In the years after the short-lived Sullivan Ordinance, attitudes began to change. Women smoking in public were seen less as a threat or a sign of promiscuity, and over the decades began to be treated more equally with their male counterparts.
MARKETING TO WOMEN
It’s fair to say Marlboro cigarettes were not hugely successful with either women or men during the first few decades after their launch into the American market. The brand held about a 1% share of sales in the US, far from being the ladies’ favorite. Despite the lipstick-colored filters and female-oriented commercials, there were not many young women smoking Marlboros reds in the general public.
Throughout the 1930s-40s, it wasn’t unusual to see beautiful women smoking in tobacco commercials, while in the movies, the ‘femme fatales‘ glamorized smoking for women too. Much of this smoking women culture was based around products marketed as smooth and mild, with filter cigarettes like Marlboro among them.
Even more tobacco advertising would feature scenes of happy family life, often with the parents smoking around their baby. In 1951 Marlboro ran an infamous campaign featuring photographs of babies with captions like: “Gee Mommy, you sure enjoy your Marlboro.”
EVOLUTION OF THE MARLBORO MAN
It wasn’t until the 1950s-60s that Marlboro was repositioned as a tough guy’s brand, with a campaign that would feature a range of characters: construction workers, sea captains, and cowboys. Filtered cigarettes were no longer seen as a women-only product, as more men started to view them as a healthier alternative, and the first commercial — featuring a cowboy character — proved popular with the general public.
Sales skyrocketed by 5,000%, and the rest, as they say, is history. From a market share of 1%, Marlboro leaped to become the fourth-biggest brand in the US industry. “Welcome to Marlboro Country” is embedded in the cultural psyche not only of the USA but of tobacco smoking countries worldwide.
Not surprisingly, the rest of the campaign was redesigned to focus solely on the cowboy. We will never know if the public would have embraced a Marlboro captain, weightlifter, war correspondent, or any of the others who were hastily dropped, but we gained the iconic Marlboro Man.
MORE FEMALE EMPOWERMENT
A mysterious woman in a black suit and hat smokes a cigarette. Black and white photo.
The normalization of smoking for women was driven by their emancipation in the first half of the 20th century, and as more women entered the workplace in the years after World War II, the number of young women smoking at work grew too.
By 1968, Philip Morris USA was ready to launch a new brand targeted specifically at female customers. Virginia Slims were introduced on July 22 with the appropriate slogan: “You’ve come a long way, baby.” The brand was successful right off the bat and is often cited as a leading factor in the rise of young women smoking at the end of the 1960s.
Just four years later in 1972, Marlboro became the market-leading tobacco brand, a position it has retained for 50 years since. Its position is not under threat: in 2017, the next seven brands combined did not add up to more than Marlboro’s 40% share of US tobacco sales.
As a brand, Marlboro owes its mid-20th century success to a man — the Marlboro Man. But take a look at the red chevron on designer Frank Gianninoto’s iconic packaging, and you’re reminded of those lipstick-colored filter tips and the fact that the Marlboro Woman came first.