Growing up, everyone knew him. He was synonymous with cool. The Marlboro Man brought the rugged, tough American cowboy to life for folks across the country. And he sold an awful lot of cigarettes.
In 1955 the Philip Morris Company was looking to rebrand their cigarettes to appeal to a wider audience, namely men as opposed to its previous marketing just for women. The Leo Burnett agency in Chicago had a great idea for an ad campaign, the American cowboy.
Sales skyrocketed in the first year of the advertisements. Eventually the Marlboro Man morphed into Marlboro Country, a series of photographs showing cowboys on the range moving cattle, galloping through streams, roping and riding. Like the Marlboro Man, Marlboro Country spurred tremendous sales so much so that the ad campaign would last for decades.
For commercial photographers, landing the Marlboro account meant very good things: generous and steady income, a substantial expense account and nation-wide exposure. For Dad, it meant a chance to create something he already loved—Old West art.
So in the late 1980’s Dad set out to win over the advertising agency that handled Marlboro. He started by studying existing Marlboro photos. Then he began planning shots that had a similar feel, but with his own interpretation like “Burning Stick”.
Over the next couple of years he assembled about 20-30 shots in between shooting for his regular commercial advertising clients. He had a few adventures along the way too. Dad’s model, a Dallas neighbor from a few streets over, was often mistaken for the Marlboro Man and occasionally Robert Redford (but that’s a story for anther blog).
While shooting “End of the Day” at the Wolfe Ranch at Arches National Park, Dad and crew overheard some tourists speculating that Marlboro must be shooting some ads today. They, apparently, thought it was pretty cool.
Dad’s quest for Old West shots took him around the country to Utah, Arizona, Colorado and the far reaches of remote south Texas. (You can read about Dad’s adventures at Big Bend National Park. ) At the same time his Western portfolio began to take shape, Dad met a number of people that helped him create the authentic Old West images. Many of those folks would become friends too.
“Getting these shots wasn’t incredibly difficult. You just needed the right people and the right equipment. You needed people who knew the right skills to pull off a shoot and could work with you. Once you found some of these folks who knew these things, you could really move forward,” Dad said.
With his new connections Dad began producing images like “Deep Snow Chase”, “Pony Express”, “Buggy in the Rain” and “Cowboy in Adobe Ruins”. Eventually he culled the images down until he had a solid portfolio of 10-15 shots. The next task was creating a slick presentation of his portfolio at the ad agency.
Dad made small black boxes that contained a small, single-image slide viewer. Each box had slides featuring Dad’s Western images. After doing some sleuthing, he learned the names of all of the art directors at the agency who were connected to the Marlboro account. Each one received a mini slide viewer package.
Dad’s photos worked their way through the art directors turning heads and generating interest. His work finally reached the second in command. Things were looking up. That art director wanted Dad to participate in a shoot-off at a ranch in Albany, Texas. That meant Dad was one of the few considered to potentially shoot for Marlboro. They wanted to see him in action. Dad said no problem, just name the date and time. He waited. And he waited. And he waited. Nothing.
This would be a good time to mention that politics play a large roll in the advertising world, specifically politics within advertising agencies. Apparently, Dad learned later, the head art director already had his favorite photographers and he wouldn’t consider anyone else. He quashed the photo shoot at the ranch in favor of his guy.
“It’s not as simple as I shoot good photos and you pay me. There’s lots of political crap,” Dad said. “But if you’re going to be in the advertising field you’ve got to deal with it and learn to pivot in a new direction at the drop of a hat.”
Dad was disappointed. Who wouldn’t be after pursuing their goal for almost two years? But there’s a silver lining to this story.
“I always wanted to do that kind of stuff–landscapes like Ansel Adams and Westerns like Marlboro. So no I don’t regret going after the account,” Dad said. “It was a great adventure trying to figure out how to do it. I ended up with a great portfolio that opened doors to other big jobs.”
Clients like The Australian Outback Collection, Cabelas, Remington Arms Company and Busch Beer soon provided income for Dad to create other pieces of Old West art. The Western stock photo market also took off and Dad’s images at Sharpshooters began to really sell. He re-invested the money right back into creating more Western images. Dad was in heaven.
Coincidentally anti-smoking legislation in the mid-1990’s and through the early 2000’s severely limited cigarette advertising. The age of Marlboro Country was coming to a close.
“It was a sweet ride for those guys (photographers) that were connected to Marlboro until the anti-smoking campaigns started,” Dad said. “But once that happened, they were looking for new clients too.”
Dad’s experience with Marlboro proves that life is more about the journey than the ending. He gained valuable experience, an outstanding portfolio and a handful of friends he wouldn’t have met otherwise. While he didn’t land the account, Dad came out richer for the experience. And like Marlboro’s cool dudes, Dad’s Old West photos keep a piece of our heritage alive.