As science began to show the harmful effects of smoking, cigarette companies tried to dissuade fears by adding filters to their products. The Phillip Morris Company initially marketed the Marlboro brand as a cigarette for women. In 1954 the Leo Burnett advertising agency set out to reach a broader market by introducing the Marlboro Man.
Originally the ads featured rugged-looking men in various roles, but in the early 1960s, they settled on cowboys in “Marlboro Country.” The idea was to appeal to young men, “post adolescent kids” by using a masculine cowboy in a ranch setting. One of the men who played the role was a real rancher in Colorado by the name of Robert Norris. Executives at the advertising agency saw him in a newspaper picture with his friend, actor John Wayne. Norris had the looks and the ranch, where the agency took hundreds of photos of him for use in the ad campaign.
The Marlboro Man campaign was so successful that by 1972, Marlboro cigarettes were leading the industry. Robert Norris was not the first, or the last, Marlboro Man. But one interesting thing about him is that he didn’t smoke. In fact, according to his son Bobby, he told his children, “I don’t ever want to see you smoking.” Eventually, one of his children asked, “If you don’t want us smoking, why are you doing cigarette commercials?” That day he called Phillip Morris and resigned from the job.
What can we learn from this? For one thing, as we have said before, human greed causes human suffering. Companies often follow the “survival of the fittest” mentality looking to enhance their bottom line at the expense of the public. Also, as every parent should know, our children will follow our example more than our words.
Norris was the Marlboro Man for 12 years, but he was not the only one. The campaign lasted until 1999. A major reason for its ending was the death of the actors who played the role and actually smoked. Five of them died of smoking-related illnesses. The cowboy theme of the campaign earned Marlboros the nickname “cowboy killers.” Robert Norris, who didn’t smoke, died in November of 2019 at age 90.
Norris’ friend, “six-pack-a-day” smoker John Wayne survived lung cancer in 1964 but died of stomach cancer in 1979. According to the “John Wayne Official” Twitter page, Norris and his wife “spent many Thanksgivings” with John Wayne. Perhaps John Wayne should have followed the example of Robert Norris. My father died from the effects of smoking more than 35 years ago, and this week I lost a friend because he was not able to kick the habit. Meanwhile, those who profit from smoking and vaping continue to demonstrate that they care more about money than people. They need to learn something about the concept of repentance.
— Roland Earnst © 2019