How did Kools become Black, and Marlboros White?

kool-good-menthol-400x400In 1971, a team of ethnographic researchers conducted focus groups with 24 African American young men in Chicago to explore the men’s sense of identity as well as their hopes and frustrations. The authors concluded that although the African American men strived for social and economic success, they were constantly turned away by racism and poverty. The constant striving – and constant disappointment – had led to a kind of inversion of masculinity like “a photographic negative.” Detachment, an ironic sensibility, and a perverse pride in being “bad” were the typical responses to this marginal status.

This scientific report was not intended for academic seminars or journals, however. Rather it was written for tobacco executives at RJ Reynolds. The study was written in order to learn more about how to expand the runaway appeal of the “Marlboro Man” campaign to African American smokers. Why were white men so captivated by the cowboy on the open range, whereas black men were drawn to the menthol flavored cigarette brands such as Kool? Today, young white smokers are six times more likely than young African American smokers to smoke Marlboros, and the pattern is reversed for Kools.

A fascinating new paper by Cameron White and colleagues discusses the different masculine identities created by the tobacco industry in the 1960s for white and black male smokers. They draw on the Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of style, a “mode of representation expressing the mode of perception and thought that is proper to a period, a class or a class fraction, a group of artists or an artist.” A critical premise is that style is neither natural nor inevitable, but represents the conscious representation of an identity by marketers to the sensibilities of a particular group in time.

Previous work on the Marlboro Man has drawn attention to the features of the campaign that made the lone cowboy on horseback the dominant icon of American masculinity in the 1950s and 1960s. The Marlboro Man was self-confident. As the authors write, “he liked being self-reliant, autonomous, and enigmatic. He was an outdoors man, a man of action rather than words; simple rather than ostentatious, timeless rather than fashion conscious.” His dress, his demeanor, even his food (beef, of course), evoked the image of a self-sufficient, lone man out on the frontier. This was particularly important during the cold war, when the frontier became a powerful metaphor for American men symbolizing renewal and economic prosperity.

Less recognized, but equally important, is the Marlboro’s identity as a white man: “If the significance of the cowboy in mid-20th-century America can be seen as a response to a range of crises, from fears of slavish conformity to defeat in Vietnam, it also needs to be considered in the context of a range of challenges to specifically White masculine autonomy.” The main challenge was the Civil Rights movement, and the growing social and political demands of African Americans. In that sense, the Marlboro Man projects an understated white male authority, which comes along with a product – the cigarette – that embodies the power and authority of that figure.

African Americans did not particularly take to Marlboros, but they did use menthol cigarettes at very high rates. The appeal of menthol cigarettes is perhaps puzzling, especially since early marketing for Kool cigarettes also portrayed white, middle class Americans. One of the deeper truths in the appeal of Kool cigarettes lies in their name and the secondary associations of “coolness” that Kool and other menthol cigarettes projected. Being cool meant having it together, and “never letting them see you sweat.” It was the celebrated personality trait of popular African American men during the 1960s, such as Muhammad Ali and Miles Davis.

Today the term “cool” is so pedestrian, and so ingrained in speech and thought, that we no longer see it as representing a particular style, specific to African American subculture. In the 1960s, however, cool was a way of establishing oneself as being part of a vibrant and oppositional social movement: “cool style was extremely prominent in African American culture in general, and it emerged as a significant aspect of African American masculinity, particularly in the context of the masculinization of the Black Power movement. The militant, the boxer, the athlete, the musician, the dancer, and the pimp were all widely considered representatives of cool.” Within this different cultural frame the cigarette again emerges as a way of establishing a particular masculine identity that exerts control and authority over constrained urban spaces rather than wide-open country ranges.

Over time, the “coolness” in Kool cigarettes has become a central piece of the manufacturer’s marketing. This marketing has been facilitated by more carefully targeting the message to African American consumers, beginning with widespread use of radio advertisements in the 1960s with slogans such as “if your cigarette just isn’t groovin’, let Kool cigarettes do some improvin’.” Targeted advertising has allowed Kool, and other menthol cigarette manufacturers, to tailor the message and image to the audience, rather than relying on a universal symbol such as the cowboy (which may resonate with only one demographic).

If we (the public health community) can understand the very specific cultural and racial overtones of cigarette marketing, can we then turn these to our advantage in counter-marketing? This is a provocative question that the authors consider in their conclusion. They argue that studying style is important “because it not only offers an opportunity to understand the consumption of cigarettes but it provides a basis for the design of tobacco control interventions that seek to reduce the initiation of smoking or to promote cessation among specific populations.”

We have made stunning progress in the last 30 years in reducing smoking in the United States, and many of the gains have happened by appealing to the particular sensibilities of groups such as youth, women, or parents. Continuing this success will be hard, however, not only because the messaging machine has become more sophisticated, but because the cultural frame of cigarette smoking, and the population of smokers, is increasingly isolated from the social mainstream. The Marlboro Man is more and more a loner.

About Brendan Saloner

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars Program. I completed a PhD in health policy at Harvard in 2012. My current research focuses on children's health, public programs, racial/ethnic disparities, and mental health. I am also interested in justice and health care.
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3 Responses to How did Kools become Black, and Marlboros White?

  1. Brad F says:

    You hit on a theme here I love to teach on.

    When I round with students and residents, I often “amaze” them when I guess the type of smokes our patients have in their pockets. In a homogeneous culture, people dont focus on the little things–like whites smoke Marlboros and blacks smoke Kools. Not the least bit of a stereotype, the choice of tobacco falls out on these lines without fail.

    When you ask folks why they make their choices, invariably, dad, friend, or sibling started them out, and marketing reinforced. The lesson serves as a gateway on the stealthy influence of branding and “tribal” preferences. Both patients and students appreciate the deconstruction when we talk about themes at bedside. When marketeers prey on weaknesses, people wake up and see how they make their choices–if you call them that. Mindy you, may not make them quit, but opens their eyes to other things.

    Incidentally, you did not mention the percent of AA’s who smoke mentholated cigarettes. I think the number exceeds 80-90%.


    • Great anecdote, Brad. It’s interesting to hear how you use this as a teaching moment in your clinical practice — you’re right, your awareness might not lead your patients to quit, but at least it’s the start of a conversation.

  2. ccooksrahecorg says:

    That’s the bests beginning, “the start of a conversation.” Then, you can use your Motivational Interviewing skills to move the conversation forward at the pace of the patient. BTW, Brendan, this is the best analysis of the subject of Menthol and African American men that I have seen thus far. Thank you!

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