Masters of Manipulation
Marlboro ads generally focus on one or both of two key themes, namely sex and anxiety/death. Allied with both of them there is a secondary theme, that of oral activity. As any mature individual knows, smoking is an oral activity. Sex can also involve oral activity. The present ad seems to be advocating both oral sex and death. One theme might give pleasure, the other ultimately tends to produce pain and suffering as well the makers of Marlboro cigarettes know. Even those who smoke and view the ad know this in their heart, hence the various connotations that can be derived from consideration of the water barrel and the 'pissing' drainpipe. The ad makers could be 'taking the piss' out of their clients. They could be intimating that smoking is like 'pissing in a barrel' in that you never get complete satisfaction from a cigarette.
Connotations apart, when viewing this ad and its caption, one is initially at a loss to explain what it is really all about. At a superficial level of analysis, this ad simply seems to indicate that 15 American states want water. Perhaps they do. But there is much more meaning attached to the phrase 'Wanted in 15 States' than meets the eye of any UK citizen. To American citizens it probably reminds them that many of the States have extremely bizarre and restrictive laws regarding sexuality, including 15 States who prosecute adults who have oral sex. Whoa there Bill!
The rollover offers an indication of an individual with 'gingery hair' in profile, in roughly the correct position. Note that the outline superimposed on the image in the rollover is far too neat. The figure in the ad is actually incomplete, washed out and fuzzy, and the rear of the head is partially obscured by a clump of grass. But once a focal point, such as the eye, is determined, then the 'face' stands out from the background, and can be recognized as such. To complete the mental picture conjured up by the meaning lying behind the phrase 'Wanted in 15 States.' there is a faint phallic shape in close proximity to the half buried head (not illustrated). Find a copy of the original ad and keep looking.
Not all Marlboro ads attempt to convey messages about sex or death. Some aspire to greater things, such as attempting to subborn American values. Here is one that continues to use oral representations.
This little number for Marlboro Ultra Lights is seemingly a straightforward attempt to convey that Marlboro is a great little cigarette. However, although there are other aspects of this ad worth considering, note that the green area of grassland in the top right hand corner of the ad bears more than a reasonable resemblance to a map of the continental United States. The unspoken visual message from Philip Morris is clear: America is (or should be) smoking.
This ad indicates that Americans and others can forget about freedom of choice where tobacco companies are concerned. As this and many other cigarette ads on this site, indicate, Philip Morris and other tobacco companies will use any technique they can in attempts to 'brainwash' individuals they cannot influence by any other means. That probably means you.
Most Marlboro ads attempt to give a number of different messages to viewers. And yet this one seems simple enough.
The image is typical of the type of scenery that one would find in the Badlands. Wind and weather have worn a remarkable hole in the rocks. Superficial judgement of such a scene might tend to focus upon the myth of the Marlboro cowboy, the scenery, or even holidays on a dude ranch. Or, perhaps - just perhaps - ones thoughts might turn to sex. The structure of the ad will actually assist you to venture on the latter track.
Note that the worn hole in the rock can be considered symbolic of a bodily orifice. The Marlboro cowboy is crossing in front of it. One could even say, in quite an intimate manner. And, alongside it, in the upper right hand corner, is the phallic implement that will penetrate that opening.
If you were not convinced by that interpretation of the Badlands ad consider the nature of the next grand country scene. Big isn't it. This phrase forms a statement, it is not a question. And the relevant ad is analysed in great detail in the forthcoming book Sexy, Subliminal and Deadly?: The Psychology of Manipulative Advertising. In this shortened commentary it is sufficient to say that this ad was carefully constructed to give messages, once again, about sex and death. Here I will just focus on the 'sexy' element, to emphasize the sexual element in the Badlands ad commented on above.
Without careful scrutiny this 'Big isn't it' ad is unlikely to reveal much. But, take note of the arrow on the roadway sign in the centre of the ad. Follow it upwards towards the cliff face. There you will find a carved figure, exceedingly weather worn, but still revealing some of the characteristics of a huge statue.
There are actually two such figures. These are highlighted in the rollover image. It is relatively easy to see the toes or claws of the figure on the right of the enlargement. Towards the top of the cliff face is the face. Halfway up, in the genital area of the statue, is a huge, pineapple shaped erection. Big isn't it? If one wished to follow through the connotations associated with this ad it would take a full five pages. Here is rather humorous one as a starter. There are a pair of statues, they are big. What is the usual common colloquial meaning attached to the phrase 'A Big Pair'?
Additionally one can note that the first figure has an upraised left arm. Furthermore it has an upraised digit finger. Is the 'up yours' sign intended to be a prime indication of what Philip Morris and their ad agencies think of Marlboro smokers? Or is it one of the artists taking the mickey out of their employer? Who knows!
The 'Big isn't it' ad was published a number of time. This would seem to indicate it was a commercially successful ad. Sometimes the scene in the ad was a mirror image of the ad above. The small illustration on the right shows one of the mirror images of the scene presented in the ad commented on above.
Comparing the different versions of the ad indicates that artistic alterations were made to whatever was the original. Outcrops of rock appear - and disappear. Artistic 'blasting' or 'major reconstructive surgery' apparently took place on the left hand side of the bluff in this instance. Such constructive efforts undoubtedly helped when the creative artists responsible turned their mind to a real construction scene, as depicted in the ad on the left.
Again, this is a 'sexy' ad if you are aware of, or respond to, the cues that direct your attention. Just as the arrow on the road sign in the 'Big isn't it' ad led one to the statue, so the alignment of the cigarette pack, and the architects plans, in this ad directs attention towards the little individual shown in the picture on the right.
This steelworker has the great granddaddy of all 'erections'. Proportionally his pecker outstrips that of the statue on the cliff face. Big isn't it? The ads creators would no doubt argue that the alignment of the pole and the steelworker was coincidental. What do you think? Other Marlboro ads can be found below, under Just Words, and elsewhere on the Subliminal World web site. Look for the Marlboro slideshow in due course. An active link will be placed here when the page is enabled.
The Devil's Disciple?
Without any reservations, the author can state that no company makes more use of secondary imagery than Philip Morris Inc. [If you are interested RJReynolds runs a close second.] A very large proportion of their cigarette ads incorporate images that have nothing to do with their products. Some embedded images are fairly blatant, some are more moderate, like those above. On the left is an example of an extremely subtle Marlboro ad - but subtle only in terms of visual imagery, not meaning. Overtly, the ad epitomizes and glorifies the Marlboro cowboy, the freedom of the range, independence, self control, etc. Covertly it aims to instil or trigger anxiety, if not fear.
The ad itself, like a large proportion of Marlboro ads, is dark and sombre. In itself this coloring might convey negative messages, and trigger negative moods and smoking in some viewers. Fitting in with the sombre mood of the ad is a figure underneath the horses hooves, a figure that can only be described as the face of a figure from another world. Perhaps Hades, perhaps just from the world of horror movies, perhaps straight from the grave.
This image is no accident of printing. Nor is it likely to be an aberration or joke on the part of an artist such as the upraised digit finger in the Big isn't it ad. Such figures appear regularly in Marlboro ads. The only reasonable conclusion one can therefore draw is that the ad agency for Philip Morris Inc. considers that such figures are sufficient to trigger a mood related response in some viewers. And that will lead to, or maintain, smoking behaviour. Such a notion could, of course, be empirically tested by any undergraduate psychology student if they wished to do so once they learned to identify these marginally perceptible images. The page on Experiments provides some relevant information.
The assumption on the part of Philip Morris' ad agency must be that smokers and potential smokers can perceive these figures without any conscious attention being paid to them. The figures are semi-subliminal and presented on the borderline of perceptual ability.
The figure referred to is illustrated somewhat more clearly to the left but the author expects that the vast majority of viewers will find it difficult to detect. The rollover image outlines the figure to make it easier for the uninitiated viewer to perceive it. Normally one would have to acquire a degree of skill at 'extracting' images against a similar coloured background before one would consciously perceive them. And of course web pages are not really the ideal medium for viewing images that were initially presented in finer detail in print. Check out original ads and hone your skills. And then, if smoking in public gets up your nose, ride along with the clip art message on the right.
The difficulties inherent in detecting such embedded images mean that Philip Morris and Co. can easily deflect criticism. The standard argument would be that the perceived figure is simply a figment of the (paranoid) imagination of the critic. Consideration of more obvious examples below should, however, lead one to adopt a more cautious approach, and not reject such interpretations of embedded imagery outright. 'Subliminal' ads exist on a continuum [see Famtree.htm. ] Examples and illustrations on the Psychology pages also provide counter arguments to those of the tobacco companies. These demonstrate that it is the application of standard rules related to visual perception, rather than psychotic thinking, that leads to the identification of embedded imagery such as this.
It will undoubtedly be argued by those who produced this ad, that perceiving figures within such a complex background cannot possibly influence anyone. They will contend that 'seeing' such images is simply the outcome of projecting ones thoughts and 'seeing' images that don't exist. Before accepting such an argument compare how easily and how often one can detect images in Marlboro ads against the effort required to do so with other similar ads. Again standard experimental techniques, and the use of content analysis, would reveal that detecting such images is much easier with the Marlboro ads than other equivalent ads. The conclusion one would thus draw, is that Marlboro ads have been constructed to provide relevant visual clues or cues.
Any study that did find results in line with this prediction would do so precisely because Marlboro ads incorporate the type of semi-subliminal) cues that trigger the relevant perceptual processes. Determining that such embedded elements exist does not, however, mean that they are effective in influencing behaviour. The cartoon on the left might be more effective. However, the consistency with which Philip Morris and Co. use semi-subliminal embedded material would seem to indicate, not only an intention to manipulate, but the capacity to do so. In other words such ads are commercially effective. The only evidence that might indicate whether or not such ads are influential, derived from evaluation studies and marketing results, is held only by the companies who produced such ads. At present the experimental evidence from laboratory studies is extremely rare and flawed in many respects. Public scrutiny of the evidence held by tobacco and other companies is thus the only means at present by which one could determine whether ads containing semi-subliminal material were effective.
Here we have another figure that is close to the borderline of visual perception. This time it is a face embedded in the chaps of the cowboy on the right. This is an example related to one of two recurring themes in Marlboro ads that are enhanced by semi-subliminal faces. One, as noted above, is anxiety provoking, and is ostensibly related to the fear of death or death and dying. The other is sex. The sexual activity indicated may be homosexual or heterosexual.
Visual images, such as presented in this ad, do not have any specific meaning. The meaning is derived from an interaction between the imagery and previous experience i.e. on the basis of previous knowledge, the viewer constructs meaning. One can therefore note that indications of homosexual activity are likely to be considered positively by those with homosexual preferences, but could be anxiety provoking to many heterosexual males. As meaning is in the mind of the viewer, some embedded sexual messages could therefore serve the same function as anxiety provoking, deathly, images.
In this ad, the 'face' would seem to be related to homosexual activities. It is looking directly towards the crotch of the cowboy in the centre of the ad. Perhaps other interpretations can be placed on such a configuration of elements. If so, the author would like to hear of them.
Another ad focusing on death related anxiety is illustrated on the left. Here the message is primarily conveyed visually by the clear allusion that the circling buzzards are focussing on something, or someone, underneath. They are about to have a picnic.
Exposure to standard Western literature would lead one to conclude that some animal or person is dying. Given that the ad is for Marlboro, it surely must be a Marlboro smoker. Heaven forbid that the potential buzzard meat should smoke Camel, Benson and Hedges or Silk Cut cigarettes!
A superficial analysis of this ad might lead one to conclude it is simply a representation of an activity that can be observed within the American west, or anywhere such carrion exist. It may simply be a depiction of birds rising on a thermal current. However, if one takes into account the imagery in Marlboro ads as a whole, and also focuses on the secondary imagery, then the message is clearly intended to represent death and dying. Even the slow, circling, motion of the buzzards are indicative of the slow motion, apparently self induced, 'suicide' of smokers.
The conclusion one should draw, is that those who produce Marlboro ads seem to have little respect for their customers. They use words and imagery as means of engendering anxiety that they hope will be relieved by smoking. Smoking, of course, triggers additional anxiety. And the vicious circle has only one winner, the tobacco company.
If viewers look carefully at smaller portions of the Buzzard' picnic ad, rather than the whole ad, they will probably note that the artwork does not offer a true representation of reality. It is textured in such a manner that one can perceive 'faces', the prototypical embedded feature found in Marlboro ads and indicative of the dead, the dying and the decayed.
Welcome to Marlboro Country, Indeed!
A superficial appreciation of this ad would seem to indicate it is simply an aerial photograph taken through an aeroplane window. However, the image superimposed on the map is in the shape of a triangle. And triangles present quite a potent message to a substantial segment of the population, a message that is, once again, clearly related to anxiety about smoking.
The most famous triangle in the world, other than the hypotenuse triangle, is probably the notorious Bermuda Triangle. As most people 'know', this is an area of the world where ships, planes and people are reputed to get lost rather easily. Statistical evidence indicates that this area, in fact, fares no better or worse in terms of disappearances and accident than other similar areas of the world. But advertising relies upon myths, not facts. The allusion here, in part, pertains to lost souls.
This is not the only Marlboro ad featuring the Bermuda triangle. Another had the triangle 'disappearing' into the Marlboro pack. The disappearing triangle ad and the ad illustrated above appear to be offering much the same message: 'Whatever the Bermuda Triangle can do, Marlboro can do better.' And it's true. With Marlboro there is no need to take a plane to lose your life.
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Last Revised: 3rd January, 2003