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The American Cowboy rides again

Long before Kevin Costner’s John Dutton, Rip, and the ranch hands on the Yellowstone Ranch, there was the Marlboro Man, the quintessential archetype, even today, of the American cowboy and our westward expansion as a country.

The Marlboro Man was first conceived by Madison Avenue’s Leo Burnett Worldwide in 1954 as Philip Morris’ new mascot for Marlboro cigarettes as a way for the company to solve an image problem it was having with with the brand in the midst of a changing market.

Introduced in 1924 as a filtered cigarette, Marlboro was initially marketed to women. At the time, filtered cigarettes were considered feminine while “real men” smoked unfiltered cigarettes.

Starting in the early 1950s, the cigarette industry began to focus on promoting filtered cigarettes as a response to the emerging scientific data about the harmful effects of smoking. Under the misconception that filtered cigarettes were safer, Marlboro, as well as other brands, started marketing the benefits of their filtered cigarette to women and men; however, market research at the time indicated that while men in particular would consider switching to a filtered cigarette, they were concerned about being seen smoking a cigarette marketed to women.

Leo Burnett’s answer to Philip Morris’ market challenge was the “Marlboro Man,” a character that exuded rugged manliness in their look and the work they did.

Within a year of the campaign’s debut, the company went from holding only one percent market share to being the fourth bestselling brand in America, and on the rise to becoming the world’s best-selling cigarette brand.

The Marlboro Man campaign ran from 1954 to 1999. Initially, it featured a variety of models and screen actors portraying rugged men in a variety of work roles but over time the campaign began featuring several real cowboys at work, images that resonated with the public’s nostalgia for an idealized and romanticized version of the American cowboy. By 1957, the Marlboro cowboy had replaced all other professions to become the campaign’s primary symbol.

Of all the cowboys and ranchers featured in the Marlboro campaigns, Darrell Winfield is perhaps the most recognizable and closely associated with the brand. A cowboy working on the Quarter Circle 5 Ranch in Wyoming when he was plucked from obscurity, Winfield was the real deal. His chiseled, rugged good looks made him the face of Marlboro cigarettes on television, in newspapers, magazines, and on billboards, from 1968 to 1989. The image of the rugged Westerner in his classic cowboy hat lighting up a Marlboro amidst the great outdoors soon became a part of American culture and today remains an iconic image.

The popularity and success of the brand and the Marlboro Man campaign with its highly recognizable cowboy image provided a ready-made market for the introduction of Marlboro-branded apparel, merchandise, and affinity marketing programs in the 1970s as the company looked for ways to keep its brand alive after President Nixon imposed a ban in 1970 that prohibits all tobacco advertising on radio and television. Easily distinguishable by its signature color palette of red, black, and white, as well as the frequent Marlboro Man motif, vintage Marlboro merchandise and memorabilia has gone on to achieve collector status.

Initially, official Marlboro outdoor gear, apparel, and merchandise could only be acquired by collecting cigarette packs and their associated labels and ordering items through their specialty catalogs. Vintage Marlboro catalogs offered a diverse range of products, including travel bags, racing and denim jackets, Zippo lighters, inflatable canoes, BBQ tools, and cowboy cookbooks. Today, vintage Marlboro merchandise can be found on such resale sites as Etsy, eBay, Poshmark, and Invaluable. For the most part, branded apparel and gear can be found at reasonable price points, mostly under $100, but early vintage clothing (leather racing jackets, denims) and rare promo displays can go for upwards of several hundred dollars.

Also making a comeback reminiscent of the Marlboro Days and thanks to the Yellowstone series is the fashion resurgence of the western look, including cowboy hats, belt buckles, and boots, all of which are collectible and covered in this month’s issue dedicated to “The American Cowboy.”

Although popular culture ascribes rugged masculinity to the American Cowboy and lifestyle, not all making their way on the westward frontier were men, as history reveals.

In our November issue, we also introduce you to 10 women who broke barriers and made a living – honestly and dishonestly – by their horse, their gun, and their wits. Many of these women living in a man’s world could shoot and ride as well as or even better than some of their male counterparts. Their lives and the myths that surround their adventures and exploits are rich in scandal and intrigue, as you will read in “Women of The Wild West.”

The popularity and romantic allure of the Wild West and some of its more colorful characters come from Wild West shows, popular from 1870-1920 in both the United States and Europe. These traveling vaudeville performances depicted romanticized stereotypes of cowboys, Plains Indians, army scouts, outlaws, and wild animals that existed in the American West. The first of these shows was Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show consisted of reenactments of history combined with displays of showmanship, sharpshooting, hunts, racing, or rodeo-style events, and a parade on horseback. Many cowboys and cowgirls coming off the plains and frontier life found a home with these shows, their exploits embellished and sensationalized for theatrical value. Today, their characters and stories are a part of the history and lore of the Wild West, something Taylor Sheridan, the creator of the “Yellowstone” series, tapped into in a big way with the return of the American Cowboy and his Stetson.