Marlboro Man Eric Lawson is the latest cigarette ad icon to die from a smoking-related disease. Lawson, who portrayed the iconic rugged Marlboro Man cowboy during the late 1970s and early 80s, died on January 10 at his home in San Luis Obispo from respiratory failure. He was 72.
The Marlboro Man advertising campaign is widely known as one of the most successful campaigns in American history, but its evolution is not so well known. Marlboro cigarettes were originally marketed largely to female audiences as a “Mild as May” cigarette, but emerging health concerns in the early 1950s caused many smokers to switch to filter cigarettes. Filter cigarettes were, at the time, considered “sissy” cigarettes – generally believed to be lacking in flavor and designed for those who could not handle the stronger brands. Marlboro became Phillip Morris Company’s first filter cigarette brand and struggled to capture the attention of male consumers. Its estimated market share at the time was around one percent.
Advertising guru Leo Burnett birthed the idea for the Marlboro Man in the mid-1950s. In a now-legendary story, Burnett asked his creative team to brainstorm the most masculine images they could conjure up. Their number one pick? Cowboys. Marlboro Man ads featuring rugged, smoking hot men began to sweep the nation shortly thereafter. The Marlboro Man campaigns quickly contributed to a 3,241 percent increase in the company’s cigarette sales. According to the History Channel, Marlboro became the world’s best-selling tobacco brand by 1972.
Eric Lawson began appearing in Marlboro Man ads in 1978 after tucking a few small acting credits under his cowboy belt with bit appearances in shows like “Baretta” and “The Streets of San Francisco.” A smoker since the age of 14, Lawson appeared in Marlboro Man ads until 1981 but eventually became an advocate for anti-smoking campaigns. He appeared in an anti-smoking Marlboro Man parody commercial and discussed smoking’s negative effects during a segment on “Entertainment Tonight.” Lawson’s other acting credits include spots on “Charlie’s Angels,” “Baywatch,” and “Dynasty.” Despite his anti-smoking efforts, Lawson struggled to kick the habit himself and continued to smoke up until he was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. This smoking-related disease is what eventually led to the Marlboro Man icon’s death.
Although Phillip Morris eliminated the Marlboro Man from ad campaigns in 1998 after U.S. tobacco companies agreed to limit advertising, the legend of the Marlboro Man lives on in over 180 countries, according to the History Channel. In 2006, USA Today named the Marlboro Man the number one most influential person who never lived.
Eric Lawson is not the first Marlboro Man icon to die from smoking-related disease. Former Marlboro Man Wayne McLaren died in 1992 from lung cancer. David McLean, who appeared in Marlboro cigarette commercials in the 1960s, died in 1995 – also from lung cancer. Although the iconic Marlboro Man lives on, Lawson’s death serves as another reminder of the dangers of smoking. Lawson is survived by his wife, Susan, six children, 18 grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren.
By: Katie Bloomstrom