Dina Kantor

It's springtime in America and that means the little marquees outside the little churches say things like: "Jesus died for you. Will you live for him?" This year the tobacco industry is also facing a kind of crucifixion, and in hopes of receiving a little mercy, it too is making calls to the faithful with an increasingly evangelical fervor.

Several weeks ago the head of R.J. Reynolds, Steven F. Goldstone, announced that he'd no longer work toward a comprehensive settlement with Congress. This was accompanied by an impassioned plea for Americans to defend their civil liberties and a tear-jerking forecast of a future where the only nicotine might come from chewing gum. "[A]ll we hear in Washington is taxation, taxation, price increase, price increase, as the only possible solution to the problem. Now there's one fundamental problem with that for me. Those price increases will destroy the domestic tobacco business, and not just my company."

This kind of self-pitying rhetoric may manage to find a sympathetic ear or two, but more persuasive by far is the recent blitz of cigarette advertising, in particular a billboard by the Philip Morris corporation. At first glance, the latest incarnation of the Marlboro Man scattered around Twin Cities highways might resemble all the others: an attractive, smoking cowboy sporting the requisite leather accessories (hat, vest, gloves).

But something is strangely askew here. This shot is too intimate, too close. This Man is too vulnerable. Not engaged in his typical cowboy activities, he's passive instead; he lacks the rugged confidence we've come to expect from our favorite tobacco icon. The Marlboro Man's enormous back is turned to the viewer. His arms, enveloped by blood-red sleeves, are spread-eagled across a horizontal wooden beam spanning the billboard's length. Against a brilliant azure sky, the cowboy hangs with the resignation of Christ on the cross: head swiveled over shoulder, eyes peering into the souls of all those sinners he's about to die for, lips sucking a last-request butt.

No longer is the cancer stick itself the greatest danger to the Marlboro Man's health, this ad seems to say. Rather it's those money-grubbing, punitive-minded liberals in Congress, those Judases in the courts who took their blood money in taxes and now want the body itself. And against such unfair assaults, the ad seems to say, doesn't the tobacco industry deserve some sympathy--even forgiveness?

Though the symbolic content of this billboard seems intriguing, the literal intent that lies behind it remains unclear. And a peculiar shroud of silence surrounds the image, perhaps confirming its deeper religious meaning. Though the scene was apparently shot by a Twin Cities commercial photographer, his representative declined to discuss the photo, citing a confidentiality agreement with Philip Morris. So too Leo Burnett, the massive Chicago advertising concern that handles the Marlboro account, did not return several phone calls. The once-swaggering Marlboro Man now walks in the shadows of the occult.

Attempts to reach Philip Morris's Richmond offices were frustrated by an all-company "Derby Day" holiday, but a spokeswoman in New York politely dismissed our speculation about the Marlboro Christ. "That wasn't our intention at all. That billboard is in keeping with themes that the Marlboro Man has always represented since the '50s."

The smoker's-rights groups are quiet as well--many no longer have listed phone numbers--although Fred Collier, a tobacco advocate living in the Rockies, seems to be following the Marlboro Christ's lead without ever having seen the billboard. "I used to be a smoker, but gave it up last week when I found out that I just might have to balance the budget with my taxes," he wrote facetiously in an e-mail exchange. "Man, it was tough."

Other cigarette brands have been equally eager to appear the underdogs. Having zapped the additives from its cigarettes, Winston now proclaims the virtues of 100 percent tobacco cigarettes ("You do the math"), and appeals to smokers as victims with lines such as "At least you can still smoke in your car." Camel, of course, has slaughtered that furry phallus named Joe (another martyr for the cause); today, the wise men (and wise teens) seek the tobacco Christ on foot.

These ad campaigns are plenty smart, but the Marlboro Man on the cross is the masterpiece that could spark a pro-tobacco backlash. Jesus was good enough to die for our sins; the tobacco industry might have no choice but to do the same.

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