Robert S. McElvaine: The Making of the Marlboro Man, 2004 (Yes, We're Talking About W)

Roundup: Historians' Take

Historian Robert S. McElvaine (Oct. 20 2004):

[Robert S. McElvaine teaches history at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, is the author of Eve’s Seed: Biology, the Sexes, and the Course of History, and is currently completing his first novel and screenplay, What It Feels Like, which also deals with questions of masculine insecurity.]

He can’t be a man, ’cause he doesn’t smoke
the same cigarettes as me.

This famous Mick Jagger and Keith Richards line from the Rolling Stones’ 1965 song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” can provide an important insight into the course of the 2004 presidential election. It holds the key to how President Bush managed to gain a lead in the polls in August and September. The line is, of course, a reference to the once ubiquitous advertisements for Marlboro cigarettes that featured the “Marlboro Man” and clearly implied that smoking that brand would make someone a “real man.” A real dead man, as it turned out, but that’s another story.

The late Theodore White’s long-running quadrennial series of volumes on “The Making of the President” has been replaced this year by “The Making of the Marlboro Man, 2004.”

To understand how central this factor is to the campaign, consider the backgrounds of the two major party candidates and compare them with the ways in which these men have come to be perceived.

One presidential candidate was a hockey player; the other was a cheerleader. One is a combat veteran from a war he tried to stop; the other avoided combat in that same war while being a vigorous cheerleader for it. John F. Kerry led men on the field of battle; George W. Bush led cheers from the sidelines.

Yet it is Bush who is seen by a majority of Americans as a strong leader, “tough,” and “manly.” How did that happen?

The question can be answered in a single word: marketing.

The current president’s father, despite being a decorated World War II airman, was dogged by “the ‘W’ Word.” A 1987 Newsweek cover story explained this charge against George H. W. Bush: “That he is, in a single, mean word, a wimp.” Now, however, Karl Rove and George W. Bush’s other marketers have much of the public believing that “W” in the president’s name stands for “Wayne,” as in John Wayne. In reality, it does. John Wayne’s image was the epitome of a man’s man: a war hero, a cowboy. But the reality was that he only played war heroes and cowboys in the imaginary world of Hollywood. George W. Bush is part of that Wayne’s World.

The contrast between the reality and the image brings to mind a paraphrase of a famous television commercial for Vicks Formula 44. In Mr. Bush’s case it would be:

“I’m not a brave man, but I play one on TV.”

What does all of this have to do with the Marlboro Man?

Few people realize it today, but Marlboros were originally marketed as a feminine cigarette. Magazine ads in the 1940s depicted an elegant woman in a long evening dress and proclaimed: “With a sure hand she picks the perfect gown . . . discreet yet dramatic. And complements it with the one cigarette in harmony.” The ad proudly pointed out that Marlboros had “immaculate tips,” available in “ivory tips” or “beauty tips.”

Then, in the 1950s, Philip Morris executives decided they wanted to try to capture a large share of the male cigarette market, so they completely reversed their marketing. They did the equivalent of pumping the very feminine woman they had been using in their advertisements full of anabolic steroids and sending her off for a sex change operation. It worked. They succeeded very quickly in convincing consumers that smoking Marlboros was a sign of manhood, and the brand became the world’s best-selling cigarette.

A similar transformation, masculinizing George W. Bush’s image, has made the Bush brand a top seller in the United States (although it has failed to find much of a market around the world).

No wonder President Bush usually has a smirk on his face. The Stones’ lyrics have been revised by the Bush marketing team in a song that might be entitled “(I Can’t Get No) Security” to:

When I’m watchin’ my TV and a man comes on and tell me
How bright George Bush can be
But John Kerry can’t be a man,
rsquo;cause he don’t smirk the same smirk as he

George W. Bush’s phony Marlboro Man persona seeks to persuade insecure Americans of his masculinity. It would be well for voters who have been enticed by the Republicans’ false advertising of their putative tough guy to remember what happened to Wayne McLaren, who portrayed the Marlboro Man in ads, and to large numbers of those who were persuaded to buy the carcinogenic product he shilled.

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Chris Daly - 10/24/2004

I find it remarkable that Bush sounds like such a cowboy when he was born in New Haven, Conn., to parents who speak classic New England preppie American English.
As a teenager, Bush went to prep school himself, in Andover, Mass. He plunged further into the heart of the Eastern Establishment with stops in New Haven (again) and Cambridge, Mass.
It is also worth nothing that his brother Jeb does not speak like a cowboy (I cannot recall hearing Neil speak), and their sister Nancy Bush Ellis certainly doesn't.
So, you have to wonder: How in tarnation did that feller end up talkin' that way?

Chris Daly