True and mysterious story of the first real Marlboro Man

The Marlboro Man (Graphic by Jack Dennis)

Marlboro cigarettes were designed for women

The first true Marlboro Man died mysteriously in 1973, found drowned with his horse in a ranch pond

In 1924 Philip Morris began selling Marlboros marketed especially for sophisticated ladies. They featured a new type of cigarette with filter tips because “Ivory Tips protect the lips”—as stated in their promotional campaigns. After World War II, knowing that American GIs were hooked from all the free cigarettes gifted to them, the agency decided to go after males in their advertising. But there were two obstacles: One, Marlboros only had one percent of the entire cigarette market. They were at the bottom of the barrel as far as men were concerned. Two, Filter tips were for sissies.

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Leo Burnett was hired to overcome the sissy obstacle. His first question to his creative team was “What’s the most masculine image in the U.S. today?”

On Saturday, December 23, 1954 (the day of my parent’s marriage), Burnett’s team suggested a Marine, a cab driver, a prize fighter, a pilot, and a sailor. But when Cowboy was offered, it became the unanimous choice. John Wayne was the ultimate cowboy and by this time had appeared in such Western classics as “Rio Grande,” “The Big Trail,” and “Hondo.”

Iconic American cowboy, John Wayne. (NL)

Burnett recalled an iconic cover of Life magazine from August 22, 1949. It was of Clarence Hailey Long, a cowboy range boss from the JA Ranch near Amarillo, Texas. They found a model who looked something like Long and created an ad in a Dallas newspaper. According to Advertising Age, this was the birth of the most popular advertising campaign in history as the “Marlboro Man” became the “icon of the century.”

In a matter of months, Marlboro’s market share rose from less than one percent to the fourth best-selling brand. Sales went from $5 billion to $20 billion in just two years. While the campaign helped introduced filter-tipped Marlboros to the male market, sales began to stagnate.

Life magazine cover inspired the Marlboro Man (LIFE)

The agency used various models for almost a decade with mediocre success. It wasn’t until one of Burnett’s art directors, Neil McBain, was scouting western settings for a Camay soap ad in 1963, that he found the first true Marlboro Man. McBain entered the 6666 Ranch in Guthrie, Texas, soon discovered Carl “Bigun” Bradley and hired him on the spot. He would earn more than $10,000 each year. This was when the annual median salary in America was under $4,400.

400 billion Marlboros are sold annually

The result has been astonishing. Marlboro continues to be the largest cigarette brand in the U.S for the last 42 years. It has 44% market share in the U.S., making it larger than the next 10 cigarette brands combined. Worldwide, almost 400 billion Marlboros are sold annually.

But Bigun did more than just help Marlboro make money. He became a symbol for America. In the likes of Uncle Sam, the American Eagle, Statue of Liberty, Superman, and the Liberty Bell, the Marlboro Man became iconic. The rough, rugged and true-gritted hero helped us through the Vietnam era by inviting us to “Come to Where the Flavor Is”—the flavor of freedom, be who you need and want to be—“Come to Marlboro Country.”

Marlboro Man became the most successful ad campaign in history. (NL)

Bigun worked every day being a cowboy on a Texas ranch since he was 14. Working for Marlboro didn’t change that. His father, his grandfather and his great-grandfathers were cowboys. With the exception of taking two days off to get married to Glenda Jo “Sis” Rees in 1966 and several times to go on location for Marlboro commercials, Bigun worked the ranch seven days a week, sunup to sundown. Near the small town of Old Glory, about 60 miles north of Abilene, Texas, was his Marlboro Country.

Bigun saddled up about 3 p.m.

On May 8, 1973, rancher Bill Flowers purchased a colt from his employee, Bigun and his father Carl “Banty” Bradley. When Flower’s foreman couldn’t handle the feisty horse, Bigun saddled up about 3 p.m. He cinched the flank rope tightly to keep the nervous horse from bucking while he led it to Cemetery Pasture.

The death of Bigun remains a mystery. (NL)

A new stock tank had been dug into the old German cemetery where many children from the 1800s were buried. It was surrounded by a strong fence and was the idea place Bigun could teach the horse a thing or two–settle her down.

Just after dark, for some reason, Glenda Bradley became worried and called Susann Flowers at ranch headquarters.

“You know how cowboys are,” Flowers told Glenda. “You gotta hit them in the head to get them off their horse. He’ll be in in a while.”

But just in case, Bill Flowers and his foreman would take a pickup out to Cemetery Pasture and check on Bigun. “I’ll call you back,” Susann told Glenda.

We didn’t bring a rope

Bigun (Philip Morris-Leo Burnett)

They didn’t find Bigun in Cemetery Pasture, but returning to the ranch house late that night they noticed something in the headlights that startled them—a horse’s leg and part of a saddle blanket bulging from the muddy water near the edge of the new stock tank.

“Get the rope,” Bill yelled, jumping from the pickup before it had even stopped rolling. The foreman replied “we didn’t bring a rope.”

It was just after midnight when Bill and Susann Flowers drove over to Glenda’s house and told her about finding the horse. But the only trace of Bigun was his gloves, some lip ice, and a package of cigarettes. His brand. Not Marlboros. Bigun always smoked Kools. The Flowers drove Glenda and her 18-month-old son, Carl Kent Bradley, back to the ranch house where they would wait out the night.

Law enforcement offices from 10 area towns, led by Stonewall County Sheriff Marvin Crawford, assisted in dragging the tank until Bigun Bradley’s body was found around 2 a.m. There were signs of a blow over one eye and behind his ear.

“Either one was hard enough to kill him,” Sheriff Crawford told Glenda Bradley later. Stonewall County Judge Warren Frazier ruled at the scene that the horse fell, knocking Bradley unconscious and causing him to drown.

He was the most patient, most courteous man I ever knew.

“He was always giving things away,” Glenda recalled. “Bridles. Spurs. If he thought someone wanted his boots he’d sit down and take them off right there. That’s just how he was. He was the most patient, most courteous man I ever knew. Even after we were married and had the baby, he would still open doors for me—yes ma’am and no ma’am—he wouldn’t even take a serving of food off the table until I’d served myself first. That’s the way May (Bigun’s mom) raised her two boys.”

“You know what I always think when I drive by here?” Susann Flowers told a reporter a few years later. “I think about Bigun’s hat. We never found it. It’s down there somewhere.”

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1 Comment on "True and mysterious story of the first real Marlboro Man"

  1. Jerry Dudley | June 27, 2017 at 1:44 pm | Reply

    Great story be it fact or fiction!

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