The most powerful brand image of the century, the Marlboro Man stands worldwide as the ultimate American cowboy and masculine trademark, helping establish Marlboro cogarettes as the best-selling cigs brand in the world.

In the 1920s, Marlboro brand was first advertised as a premium cigarettes for women. But the brand never took hold, and by the 1950s concerns over the connection between smoking and cancer drove many smokers to filtered brands. Philip Morris didn’t have a filtered cigarette, so it scrapped the old campaign in favor of re-launching Marlboro as the company’s filtered alternative.

After deciding to introduce filters to the brand, Marlboro executives still had the brand’s feminine image to deal with. As Schalch reports, it didn’t help that filtered cigarettes were considered softer versions of the real thing, cigarettes for sissies.

In the 1950s, a time when cigarettes were accepted in even the politest society, Burnett created the macho man icon as a way to reposition Marlboro from a “mild as May” ladies cigarette to a product with broader appeal. The original newspaper ad from Burnett carried the slogan “delivers the goods on flavor” and it immediately sent sales skyrocketing.

In a 1972 documentary, Burnett recalled the brainstorming session in which they stumbled upon their icon.

By the time the Marlboro Man brand went national in 1955, sales were at $5 billion, a 3,241% jump over 1954 and light years ahead of pre-cowboy sales, when the brand’s U.S. share stood at less than 1%.

“I said, ‘What’s the most masculine symbol you can think of?’ And right off the top of his head one of these writers spoke up and said a cowboy. And I said, ‘That’s for sure.’”

The first Marlboro men weren’t limited to cowboys. They were all sorts of rugged individuals who smoked their cigarettes while performing equally manly tasks, from fixing their cars to fishing or hunting.

The rather abrupt advertising about-face sparked a similar turn in sales. By 1957, Marlboro’s sales were skyrocketing. Unfortunately for Philip Morris, however, 1957 also brought with it one of the first rounds of negative publicity. A study published in Reader’s Digest linked smoking with cancer.

In response, Marlboro once again turned to show its softer side. But this time it made sure to do so in a way that might retain the masculine appeal the company had worked so hard to cultivate, while calming the nerves of anxious smokers. Instead of focusing on the mysterious tattooed Marlboro Man, it turned the camera to sultry singer Julie London, who would share a smoke with her lucky male companion in between verses of the dreamy new “Settle Back With a Marlboro” theme.

These commercials, paired with print ads that showed apparently wealthy men relaxing for a smoke, lasted for a while. But as American politics became more complicated in the 1960s, Jack Landry, the Marlboro brand manager at Philip Morris, saw an opening into which the cowboy fit like a glove.

“In a world that was becoming increasingly complex and frustrating for the ordinary man,” Landry explained, “the cowboy represented an antithesis — a man whose environment was simplistic and relatively pressure free. He was his own man in a world he owned.”

Marlboro’s television advertisements in the ’60s reflected the idea of freedom in wide-open spaces, especially once the theme from the movie The Magnificent Seven was added to the scenes of cowboys leading their herds through dusty canyons of “Marlboro Country” or charging off to rein in a stray colt.

Part of the success of the campaign might be attributable to the fact that Marlboro forged some credibility by using real cowboys in some of the ads instead of actors just playing the part.

The image took hold with enough force that even through a ban on televised tobacco advertisements that began in 1971, the Marlboro Man survived unharmed. Instead of riding off into the sunset, the image turned up in print ads and on billboards all over the country.

While a government ban couldn’t kill the Marlboro Man, the instrument that ended up doing the trick was the product itself. Two Marlboro men, Wayne McLaren and David McLean, died of lung cancer, but not before McLaren could testify in favor of anti-smoking legislation.

The striking print shot of cowboys enjoying a smoke on horseback continued to fuel sales growth. In 1972, Marlboro became the No. 1 tobacco brand in the world.

As the anti-smoking movement has spread, the Marlboro Man brand has come under particular attack for his role in luring new customers to a cancer-causing habit.

As a commercial icon, he is both reviled and revered. Yet one measure of this icon’s clout is that no matter how minimal the imagery gets it still remains instantly evocative of a mythical Marlboro country, of a mythical American cowboy and of the No. 1 brand of cigarettes.