Myth and Masculinity in Advertising

Introduction to the Marlboro Man

Roland Barthes argued that some connotations were so prevalent in society that their meanings were accepted as undeniable truths and taken for granted. The traditional values associated with masculinity are a good example of these myths. Leadership, strength, courage and intelligence are all traits linked to masculinity in the media. This representation is epitomised by the Marlboro Man.

In the 1950s, market research showed Marlboro was seen as a brand for women, so the manufacturers were eager to change the product’s image to make it more appealing to men. The advertising executive, Leo Burnett, created a marketing campaign which which included a variety of masculine identities, including the iconic cowboy. The advertisements were an incredible success.


Analyse the following print advertisement in terms of Barthes’ definition of myth and the representation of masculinity.

Marlboro Advertisement

Points to Consider

Although the question is asking you to focus on the second order of signification, you still need to refer to the physical form of the signs and what they signify.

The producers of this particular text want the audience to focus on the man. Consider the choice of dress codes: the dusty jeans, denim shirt and Stetson hat are obvious signifiers of the cowboy identity. How does the representation connect with the traditional definitions of masculinity. You should explain the role of someone who works on a ranch to support your ideas.

Comment on the choice of actor for this role, including his muscular physique and rugged facial features. Does his appearance encode any messages about masculinity?

Suggest reasons why there is a horse included in the shot. Why is the man continuing to hold the reins? What does it suggest to the audience about his relationship with nature?

You could also comment on the way the man cups his hands to protect the cigarette from the wind. How does that gesture suggest resilience?

Once you have offered an interpretation of the dominant signifiers and other important codes, make sure you relate that information to the myth of masculinity being reinforced by this sort of representation.

Final Thoughts

Wikipedia has a good article on the famous figure if you want more information about the Marlboro Man and his appearances in advertising and popular culture.

For more revision of these key concepts, you should look at Thomas E. Franklin’s famous image taken in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!