At least he died with his boots on

He was the world's most popular cowboy, and he was blamed for more deaths than Billy the Kid. Now the Marlboro Man's famous billboard has been handed to those who want to tarnish his memory. Welcome to the world of `subvertisement'
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It has some claim to being one of the world's best-known landmarks. Not quite as internationally famous as Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower, perhaps, but scarcely lagging very far behind in the list of those sights which define the peculiar kind of seeing we associate with tourism. To "see" Los Angeles without seeing the Marlboro cowboy billboard on Sunset Boulevard is not really to have seen it at all, this being a city in which signs are pretty much all there are to see.

In the iconography of Hollywood the Marlboro man takes second place only to the Hollywood sign itself - nine vast white letters which turn a whole vista into a labelled postcard. But while the Hollywood sign takes above-the-title billing in the souvenir shops and T-shirt franchises, it offers few of the cultural pleasures delivered by the Marlboro Man billboard - a colossus who appears ideally suited to his location. This is, after all, a city of fantasies, the very place where the cowboy's transformation from rancid hired hand into national hero was finally completed.

Towering above Sunset, next to the gardens of the Chateau Marmont, the Marlboro cowboy was one of the best definitions of what LA is about - a brash appetite for excess, an indifference to context, the knowing exploitation of guileless ideals. And because he stood a little apart from the film industry, he enjoyed something that was never available to the transient giants on neighbouring billboards - a sense of permanence.

This year's A-list star might have his vanity massaged by a temporary enormity, staring down at his rivals while the publicity budget lasts, but the Marlboro cowboy was always there, coolly indifferent to passing traffic and passing celebrity. When the architecture writer Aaron Belsky said he was a "more enduring urban monument than almost any other building in Los Angeles", he wasn't simply indulging in journalistic hyperbole. In a town happy to knock down the old in favour of the latest thing, the cowboy had seen many buildings come and go.

It was hardly surprising then that when cigarette billboard advertising was finally outlawed just over a year ago, the thoughts of some Californians turned to that particular landmark, the Taj Mahal of tobacco. There were dismayed and angry letters in the press, and furious editorials from right-wing ginger groups. The Ayn Rand Institute, a lobby group devoted to the promotion of "reason, egoism, individualism and laissez-faire capitalism" offers a representative sample of conservative indignation. "Our government has made smoking into a battleground for freedom," wrote David Harriman. "If we allow it to outlaw the Marlboro Man, we are paving the way for another symbol to take his place: the swastika."

As it happened, he was wrong, even though his fulminations did little to stop the "tobacco gestapo" in its tracks. The Marlboro Man, or someone very like him, is still in place on Sunset, even though he suffered a subtle emasculation on 23 April this year. On that date, as part of their Master Settlement with the government, the major tobacco companies agreed to hand over all the billboards on which they had leases to their arch- enemies - the State health and education departments which were doing their best to put them out of business. The companies would have to continue footing the bill until January 2000, paying for the kind of prime-site advertising most government agencies could never afford. But the deal came with a sting: health departments had to have suitable creative work ready to go up on the day or the use of the sites returned to the tobacco companies.

If they thought the deadline might defeat their enemies they reckoned without the zeal of the public officials or the increasing ingenuity of their approach. What replaced the Marlboro man was not a swastika, nor the kind of doleful anti-smoking admonition with which the public had become over-familiar, but a sly lampoon of the original's macho posturing. The cowboy still pulls on his cigarette but it is hard for the pose to look as heroic and gritty and devil-may-care as it once did, since it now curves downward with a detumescent droop. Running vertically down his side the brand name Marlboro has been replaced by a single word - "Impotence". By the calculation of Colleen Stevens, the chief of media for the California Department of Health Services, Philip Morris Incorporated, the cigarette manufacturer, is now paying something in the region of $50,000 a month to tell the public that their most valuable brand may leave male customers dangling.

This hits Marlboro man where it hurts, since virility is at the very heart of the branding. When Marlboros were first launched in the 1920s it was as a woman's cigarette - the copyline was "Mild as May" and the adverts showed a female hand reaching for a packet. When sales faltered the company tried another approach, colouring the filter red so that lipstick smears wouldn't show up on it. It didn't work. During the Second World War, co-inciding with the biggest government-funded promotion of male smoking in history, the brand was taken off the market. Ironically it was the Surgeon-General who gave it a second chance. When the early evidence of the link between smoking and lung cancer began to emerge the market churned as consumers abandoned old loyalties in search of a safer hit. But if smokers were anxious about their lungs they were even more insecure about their image. Philip Morris hired Leo Burnett to reintroduce Marlboros as a "man's smoke". It worked. According to Katharine M West, who has written a study of the Marlboro brand, sales increased by 5,000 per cent in the first eight months of the campaign.

The cowboy wasn't alone at first, sharing his spot with various tanned and tattooed exemplars of American manhood - hunks who looked as if they could, and would, hospitalise you if you were unwise enough to snigger at their sissy filters. Over the years, though, the cowboy evolved into the purest expression of nicotine machismo, effortlessly surfing waves of positive images in Fifties western serials and Hollywood movies. The cowboy became synonymous with Marlboro cigarettes, almost as much as the flip-top box with its geometry of red and white.

In that respect, the current cowboy on Sunset strip presents an perfect example of a new strategy for those hoping to counteract the powerful influences of the big corporations - fight the advertising as much as the product. Where conventional health campaigns would target the consequences of smoking (LA is currently running a poster campaign which depicts a mournful child above the tag line "Zack's father wasn't the only victim of the tobacco industry") or the health effects of tobacco in general, the new campaigns aim to damage a far more valuable commodity for the big companies - the brand images which they have paid millions of dollars to build. And the more crisply defined that brand image is in terms of the general culture, the more vulnerable it is to attack. The California Department of Health knew it couldn't lampoon the Marlboro pack, explains Colleen Stevens, but even the most the most feral tobacco lawyer (actually an increasingly timid breed these days) would hesitate before arguing that Philip Morris had a copyright on cowboys.

Kalle Lasn, the Canadian founder of Adbusters magazine and a man with a fair claim to have pioneered this style of cultural subversion, points out that in any case a law-suit may be the last thing their opponents want. Adbusters's rather similar assault on Absolut vodka - a glossy ad which showed the familiar upright outline in a state of flaccid impotence - initially provoked legal action from the company, an action that was dropped when Adbusters showed it would fully exploit the resulting David and Goliath story. "We think of ourselves as culture jammers," Lasn explains. "A good commercial or a good uncommercial is like a mind-bomb and it really makes a difference in the culture." The California Department of Health has clearly learnt some lessons from this approach. It purchased 30,000 of Adbusters's Joe Chemo poster - a spoof which re-imagined the cartoon figurehead for Camel cigarettes shuffling along a hospital corridor with a drip attached to his arm - and went on to develop its own spoof Marlboro ads. In one, a familiar shot of a cowboy communing with his horse was accompanied by the decidedly unheroic copyline "Chemotherapy scares me, Scout".

The Marlboro man has almost certainly gone west for good. Even before the billboard ban, Philip Morris had begun to move to more abstract representations of Marlboro country - empty landscapes in which only objects gave a sense of human presence. But while he may have a future on wilder frontiers - in China, for example, where Philip Morris sales have quadrupled in a decade - America has seen the last of him. The one memorial may remain in the state that did most to kill him off. In January the use of the famous billboard reverts to Philip Morris, but if the city fathers have any sense they'll do whatever is necessary to keep the cowboy up, however limp his fag. How else, after all, could they fill the hole that he would leave?