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Marlboro Cigarette Advertising Semiotic Analysis Essay

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Updated: Nov 25th, 2020


Each picture has its meaning in society instead of serving simply as an entertaining combination of colors, brush strokes, or figures. Similarly to text, they have coded ‘messages’ for the viewer to decode and understand. By processing a certain amount of such coded messages, a change may happen in the personal value system of an individual or a group. Therefore, meaning-rich pictures such as commercial advertisements have power over people. For instance, cigarette advertisement campaigns in the first half of the twentieth century are significant contributors to the formation of symbols such as masculinity (Cortese & Ling 2011: 5).

Analyzing them from the standpoint of semiotics is vital for capturing the implicit values, senses, social, and cultural context of the time when they were produced. Advertisement campaigns of Marlboro can be considered iconic for their influence on society, which is why it is paramount to decode the meaning and symbols they are proposing and describe their transmission pathways (Cortese & Ling 2011: 22). The two pictures representing a beautiful woman and a handsome man in a cowboy outfit are the classic images that Marlboro used in their further campaigns. In this paper, it will be argued that the Marlboro cigarette campaigns for women and men contributed greatly to creating ‘classic’ images of masculinity and femininity in the American culture.

Semiotic Analysis

Semiotic analysis of cigarette advertisements is supported by the scientific community and named one of the most essential and effective tools for interpreting their message (Anderson, Dewhirst & Ling 2006: 254). According to Bignell (1997: 1), semiotics is a science about signs and their meaning in society. The two pictures chosen for analysis contain an implicit meaning which is translated through these signs. According to Anderson, Dewhirst, and Ling (2006: 255), each picture to be meaningful to a viewer follows the standard communicative process that entails the source, encoding, message, decoding. In this case, the model entails the Marlboro company that encodes a message implying the positive qualities of a buyer. The receiver decodes the message by seeing attractive elements, mentally forging them into a perfect image of self and the person from the advertisement picture. To better understand the meaning of the advertisement piece, it is vital to grasp the initial intention of the author of the message.

Masculinity in Marlboro Campaign for Men

The key inclination of Marlboro for both men and women campaign is to sell as many cigarettes as possible. To do that, Marlboro chose to attract customers by appealing to esthetically and implicatively pleasuring views and concepts (Morgenstern, Isensee & Hanewinkel 2013: 45). In the poster, several signs together create a meaningful message. The men’s campaign illustrates a man in a high-crowned hat, high leather boots for horse riding, jeans, and a denim jacket. Such an outfit signifies a cowboy – an image easily recognizable by people in America. As stated by Anderson, Dewhirst, and Ling (2006: 256), messages have a denotative or literal and connotative or implied meaning. The denotative meaning of this outfit is the profession of a person who is typically occupied with ranch and kettle choirs. Connotations, however, are of particular interest.

According to Hall (1997: 3), one of the ways of representing an object is through a mental pathway that requires appealing to certain concepts that are already formed in the consciousness of a grown person. As such, the concept of cowboy among many people may be connected with their representation in popular culture. A typical movie cowboy was a handsome and courageous man who withstands evil and always emerges victorious. Such traits of character and visually appealing strong body are the attributes of a manly, masculine look that Marlboro wants to develop in their message. The fact that the character who signifies masculinity smokes makes smoking an attribute and almost a prerequisite for handsomeness and courage. It is important to note, that the success of this advertisement campaign was based on the choice of an image that possessed several characteristics for which most male population was craving (Morgenstern, Isensee & Hanewinkel 2013: 43).

In addition to the hero-like image of a cowboy, this profession is also associated with hard labor and reliability. Research evidence provided by Morgenstern, Isensee, and Hanewinkel (2013: 43) suggests that positive image traits, such as independence, are often exploited to promote smoking. An image of a traditional man constructed or, rather, promoted by Marlboro is defined by labor, wage-earning, and effort. Such a position implies a dominant state in a family and society. Therefore, in Marlboro’s vision, a concept of ‘self-made man’ is also a necessary attribute of masculinity sign. Although not implied directly, freedom can also be a part of the message sent by this poster. Similar sign manipulation can be identified in the campaign for women.

Femininity in Marlboro Advertisement Campaigns for Women

The concept of femininity is produced my Marlboro for the coverage of its target audience. In this particular advertisement piece, the femininity sign is decoded from several visual and textual attributes. Firstly, the face of a woman holding a cigarette possesses a range of feminine attributes such as a proportionate nose, small line-like eyebrows, red lips, curly hair that were popular in the 1920s signified beauty. Beauty was always a desirable characteristic that most women would like to possess, as it is a necessary attribute for attracting men (Amos & Haglund 2000: 5). The logical chain in that time was that attractive women are capable of scoring a better marriage, which often meant success in life.

Elegance as another attribute a woman wants to achieve is portrayed through the grip of a cigarette that is held by the middle and index fingers. This thesis is supported by Goffman (1979: viii) who wrote that a woman’s hands are often portrayed as barely touching or lightly gripping objects to underline the delicacy of a woman’s nature. Posing and facial expressions in the photograph, as Goffman (1979: 17) suggests, play a vital role as they can create almost any personality for a customer to associate themselves with. The woman in the picture imitates a mysterious look in the eyes which may signify a mystery that every woman should have. Goffman (1979: 65) called the phenomenon of gazing at something behind the scene an “anchored drift.” According to Amos and Haglund (2000: 5), the idea of buying cigarettes was tied to being like men in their habits adding a symbolic value of being equal to them. Emancipation and freedom as one of the topics could also be sensed in the advertisement through the raised chin. All these criteria and attributes that symbolize a young, attractive woman with a secret all men want to uncover comprise femininity that Marlboro successfully advertised.

Textual evidence is also significant for identifying signs. Anderson, Dewhirst, and Ling (2006: 256) wrote that elements in the language system may be polysemic and connect to signs in a variety of ways. The slogan “mild as May” denotes a month in the spring season. The connotation maybe that May is the very heart of spring, where flowers and trees blossom, and the air is filled with fragrances. Blossoming of nature could be associated with youth and blossoming of a woman herself, which also a positive implication. Thus, with this slogan, Marlboro creates a picture attractive enough to complement the style, beauty, and elegance portrayed in the face and posture of a woman holding a cigarette.

Another slogan “Ivory Tips protect the lips” contains a sense of practicality along with status. Hall (1997: 4) states that people sharing the same language also possess similar conceptual maps and therefore recognize the same symbols in the same items. It could, therefore, be safe to assume that in the western world ivory was always a precious material. It tends to elevate the price of an item. Ivory handles, ivory accessories may create a notion of high society. Thus, femininity in Marlboro’s advertisement campaign for women is created through many concepts such as beauty, youth, and elegance.


The signs of masculinity and femininity produced by Marlboro cigarette advertisements have many things in common. Firstly, their multi-conception nature that is developed by several elements present in the pictures. Both Marlboro Woman and Man represent success through a range of characteristics that are associated with it. For instance, beauty in women often contains a social meaning of being popular among men, while “self-made” and “handsome” concepts of masculinity allow a male person to be successful with women (Amos & Haglund 2000: 5; Cortese & Ling 2011: 8). Furthermore, the similarity can be found in the positivity of the presented character. The customer is supposed to associate himself or herself with the person depicted in the advertisement while remembering the implication that Marlboro cigarettes remain the required element of such attire. Simply put, if you buy Marlboro – you look like this. Both persons represent a collective image of an empowered social being to which both sexes strive. The two signs are also united through the constraints imposed by society. Both femininity and masculinity are set with rigid boundaries and a certain grain of perfection in them. Traditional or old-fashioned understanding of features that should be characteristic of man and woman are bound to shape the values of customers in a defined way.

On the other hand, masculinity and femininity have certain distinctive features as presented by the advertisements. If the Marlboro Man is presented as an independent and confident person, where only he defines his social position, Marlboro Woman’s main implication is to be attractive to men to be successful in life. Despite certain emancipation that can be sensed in the head position and eyes, beauty is still a defining feature because more attributes contribute to visualizing it. Also, it seems not to matter what a woman does, as long as she has a pretty face. The man, however, is represented as a person of specific occupation and depicted in full height.

Implications for American Society

The advertisement is a product and, in a sense, a shaping force of mass consciousness that defines norms of society. Due to the massive production and frequent display, the signs produced by companies such as Marlboro become persistent for generations. It could be argued that producers simply follow trends in society, but the work of a marketing specialist is occasionally far deeper. One of the reasons why these posters as typical representatives of Marlboro marketing strategy become so effective is that they hit the desires and insecurities hidden in most men and women. Goffman (1979: 26) claims that advertising holds the power of creating meaning by depicting men and women in a specific manner. By exploiting connotative or implied notions, Marlboro and other tobacco producers shaped a new generation of smokers changing their attitude towards the process and the fact.

As stated by Amos and Haglund (2000: 3), before the 20th century, women did not usually smoke or at least did not publically acknowledged it. Smoking was considered a deviation from moral standards implying a woman of low social standing. However, in the middle of the 19th century, a picture of a model with a cigarette in her hand became suddenly well-accepted. Lull (2013: 2) suggests that ideology as a macro-level way of thinking shared by certain people in society is always used for a purpose. The campaign proposed a new ideology, a set of values and attitudes towards subjects such as smoking and its value for achieving success. Marlboro practically built it to gain profit from people believing that smoking is sophisticated, helps you attract the opposite sex, achieve social status, improve health, and so on.

Similarly, the shift was noted in the smoking behaviors of men. In American society, smoking cigarettes with filters was considered a women’s habit while men smoked pure tobacco (Anderson, Dewhirst & Ling 2006: 5). The prejudice also formed as a result of a marketing campaign of filtered cigarettes that mostly featured women. The image of a Marlboro Man, a cowboy that smokes presumably women’s cigarettes was enough to sway the moods towards a change of smoking habits. It is noteworthy that trends were not shaped in a day. As Bignell (1997: 23) notes, social concepts and myths are generated in a culture if they are tied to a certain cultural layer and have a history. Several years or dozens of years had to pass before filtered cigarettes, for instance, became a norm, as such a cultural layer had to take form in the minds of people.

Another significant influence on society produced by the two cigarette campaigns was the gradual anchoring of gender stereotypes. Cowboy Marlboro and Marlboro woman were essentially several stereotypes of how perfect men and women look like. They rarely allowed misconceptions and were consistent with the idea of femininity and masculinity. Even now, boys start smoking to “look cooler” while girls smoke to demonstrate emancipation and personal contradiction to social norms (Amos & Haglund 2000: 3). The implication for the society was that men and women both started to chase the ideas which looked at them from the posters, fostering the consumerist tendencies and yielding a profit for the cigarette companies.


All things considered, masculinity and femininity are the core signs constructed by the Marlboro advertising campaigns form men and women. Semiotics is the reason why the signs work in the company’s favor. Through posing models, polysemic words, representation through common conceptual maps, culture, and history signs found their way to be recognized and accepted by people. Marlboro utilized the acceptance of femininity and masculinity to their advantage. The significance of the identified signs for American society is imbued with its power to shape and fuel trends, create, and dismantle stereotypes about men and women. All that tremendous influence on society was made possible through the informed use of semiotics, and communication theory.

Reference List

Amos, A & Haglund, M 2000, ‘From social taboo to “torch of freedom”: the marketing of cigarettes to women’, Tobacco Control, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 3–8.

Anderson, SJ, Dewhirst, T & Ling, PM 2006, ‘Every document and picture tells a story: using internal corporate document reviews, semiotics, and content analysis to assess tobacco advertising’, Tobacco Control, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 254–261.

Bignell, J 1997, Media semiotics: an introduction, Manchester University Press, Manchester.

Cortese, DK & Ling, PM 2011, ‘Enticing the new lad: masculinity as a product of consumption in tobacco industry-developed lifestyle magazines’, Men and Masculinities, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 4–30.

Goffman, E 1979, Gender advertisements, Harper & Row, New York, NY.

Hall, S 1997, Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices, SAGE, New York, NY.

Lull, J 2013, Media, communication, culture: a global approach, John Wiley & Sons, New York, NY.

Morgenstern, M, Isensee, B & Hanewinkel, R 2013, ‘Seeing and liking cigarette advertisements: is there a “mere exposure” effect?’ European Addiction Research, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 42–46.

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