A deadly Western myth rides toward the sunset
I can see it like it was yesterday: Rugged cowboys in dusters on horseback in a downpour, punching cattle panicked into a stampede by lightning. The theme from the movie "The Magnificent Seven" blared from the background.
Finally, the herd calmed, and we saw the cowboys sitting around the campfire smoking cigarettes as the sun set. They were Marlboro Men.
Cigarette advertising has been banned from television since 1971, but the image of the Marlboro Man endures. It has woven its way into the fabric of the myth of the American West.
The Marlboro Man ad campaign, started in the 1960s, was one of the most successful in history. Before Philip Morris bought the concept from the Leo Burnett Advertising Agency, Marlboro was a slumping cigarette brand targeted to women.
In the world created by Madison Avenue, the West became "Marlboro Country," inhabited by grizzled-yet-clean-cut men who, of course, smoked Marlboros. I was one goat-roping farm boy who wanted to live in "Marlboro Country." I knew what I had to do even if I also knew it was all a facade.
I smoked Marlboros for years, starting in high school. I quit cigarettes Jan. 20, 1981, the day Ronald Reagan rode into the White House and made America ride tall in the saddle again. It was also the day my father -- a regular smoker -- had his first of two heart bypass operations. He later died of heart failure. Mom died of emphysema earlier this year, 23 hours after she smoked her last cigarette.
The luster has worn off cigarettes in the last 40 years. No one, including a reluctant tobacco industry, disputes the fact that cigarettes kill hundreds of thousands of Americans and perhaps millions of people worldwide every year.
Smokers have been relegated to closed airport lounges, a few remaining bars and forced to light up in the cold outside of office buildings. Two of the original Marlboro men made very public pleas against smoking before succumbing to lung cancer.
Wayne McClaren, 51, died in 1992. David McLean, 73, died in 1995. Lung cancer also killed Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, the heroes of "The Magnificent Seven" on which the theme evoked the memory of the rugged individualists fighting for right. A lot of Americans may have quit smoking, but the powerful images of the Marlboro Man and Marlboro Country remain in the minds of generations of Americans. Now, the West is changing and so is America.
In the 1990s, Marlboro Country went through a metamorphosis to appeal to a new generation of Marlboro Men. The West, according to advertising copy marketing this new image, is a "land that knows no limits." Marlboro Country became "Marlboro Unlimited." Ads promoted "Gear without Limits" for people who wanted to go to the Land That Knows No Limits. It was Madison Avenue at its best, the mythic West at its worst.
Most of us who live in the West recognize it is anything but the Land That Knows No Limits. There are plenty of limits: Water, leadership, patience and vision, to name a few.
Because of the growing limits on advertising and marketing cigarettes,Marlboro now only offers its Marlboro Miles catalog to smokers who can prove they are older than 21. I get it mailed to my house because my son got it when he lived here. This year Philip Morris introduced into a smokeless tobacco alternative, Marlboro Snus. It also plans on adding more Marlboro-branded products, including Marlboro Smooth cigarettes and Marlboro Virginia Blend cigarettes, using only Virginia-grown bright tobacco. This is an industry that just won’t die.
But while the Marlboro brand is still strong, its connection to the West is slowly burning away. My 22-year-old daughter's generation doesn't think about smoking when the theme of the Magnificent Seven plays.
The Marlboro Man is not dead yet. But he’s coughing.
Rocky Barker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. He is environmental writer for the Idaho Statesman and author of the book “Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America.”