Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

The Marlboro Man Rides into the Sunset

Darrell Winfield died January 12. He was better known as the Marlboro Man.

marlboro-manOthers had been tried, including some guy who had to be lifted by a crane onto a horse for every commercial take. But Winfield was the real deal– an actual wrangler who wore his own clothes in ads and smoked Marlboros until the very end. He was 85.

Nothing epitomizes the marketing prowess of Big Tobacco than the Marlboro Man. As its brand symbol and personality, Winfield helped Marlboro become the best-selling cigarette in the world, a position it still holds.

Winfield wasn’t a model or someone roaming around Wyoming looking for a job. A Chicago advertising agency spotted him in the herd of cowboys and decided on the spot he was the “Man.”

For smokers and nonsmokers alike, Winfield as the Marlboro Man came to symbolize the cool guy who smoked. He wore a Stetson like a BMW driver wears gloves. He was comfortable with a lariat on his shoulder. And he had a look that some called “noble” and others described as a “modern Odysseus.” The Marlboro Man was intentionally marketed as the guy every guy wanted to be like.

It helped that Winfield actually knew how to rope a calf and ride a horse. His weather-worn face proved he was no home boy or office clerk. A it turned out, Winfield’s parents were destitute farmers who moved from Oklahoma to escape the Dust Bowl. He didn’t bear any bitterness, but he also didn’t take life too seriously. He played poker, teased friends and read books about the Wild West. You might say, Winfield was just a regular guy.

As the Marlboro Man, Winfield was bereft of a home and a name. “That guy” was scraped out of the earth and put on a smoke-shrouded pedestal. In real life, Winfield married at age 18, fathered six children and enjoyed his grandchildren, three of whom he and his wife raised.

Getting the right light and the perfect pose took hours of patient waiting, which Winfield took in stride. Waiting is part of every real cowboy’s life.

Winfield never got puffed about his celebrity status, which plastered him on billboards all over the globe. Instead of hanging out with Hollywood stars at pool parties, Winfield adopted the Native American custom of sweats. Many locals in his home town called him by his Indian name, Strong Mountain.

LungbobSmoking has been linked to the deaths and debilitation of untold numbers of people. Winfield remained healthy most of his life, despite loyally smoking Marlboros. He suffered a failing vascular system and, later, a stroke, which probably was caused in part by smoking. Four of his predecessors in the saddle as Marlboro Men died of lung cancer, emphysema or related pulmonary diseases. Eric Lawson, one of the four, joined the anti-smoking movement and parodied his role.

You almost can imagine Winfield, alone on horseback in some field, chuckling to himself about the notoriety and money he earned for literally being himself. He was the Marlboro Man to the world, but Darrell Winfield to his family and friends. He was a cowboy and a father. He just happened to be Big Tobacco’s perfect role model.

His advertising image reinforced Marlboro’s message that it is manly to smoke. I would like to believe Winfield went along with the illusion, but didn’t buy the premise. He smoked for the same reason as other people who smoke – they are hooked. That’s the ugly secret that a billboard can’t hide. 


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