Media: Marlboro's red makes it black and white. Geddit?: Martin Rosenbaum analyses the subversive motives behind those ads that make you scratch your head

THE Marlboro cowboy, one of the world's most famous advertising symbols, has long been banned in Britain on the grounds that his macho image conflicts with the cigarette advertising code. A peculiar alternative, however, has been appearing on poster sites around the country: the Marlboro redneck.

This is the hefty pick-up-truck driver whose sunburnt neck is the one feature picked out in colour in an otherwise black and white shot. The health warning tells you that the photograph is a tobacco advertisement; and the red, that the ad is for Marlboro (it offers no brand name, nor any other indication).

Some in the advertising industry confess to being puzzled by the linking of the product to an emblem of gun-toting, narrow-minded bigotry. The ad, however, is just one in a series for Marlboro that emphasises the colour red, which some see as part of a far-reaching strategy.

All the ads - others have featured a cactus, a police car and a scorpion - rely entirely on one element of red in a black and white American landscape to convey intriguingly (in conjunction with the health warning) the product advertised.

'Red is the branding element, as opposed to having a pack,' says Alison Wright, the account manager at the agency involved, Bainsfair Sharkey Trott. 'If you can make someone wonder and have a second look, you can get their attention for the brand.'

Perhaps the campaign is simply another ingenious gimmick from an ad agency outwitting tobacco advertising restrictions; or perhaps it is part of a long-term plan to counter a future EC-imposed total ban on tobacco advertising, which is widely regarded as inevitable.

According to Action on Smoking and Health (Ash), it is a stage in Marlboro's attempt to appropriate the colour red, and build up the association between red and Marlboro so that, even in an ad-less future, the mere sight of the colour will trigger the brand in smokers' minds. Ash's deputy director, Stephen Woodward, says: 'We will see shopfronts painted in line with cigarette-pack colours. It is an insidious and dangerous form of communication.'

Ash points to Marlboro-sponsored Formula 1 cars that feature the red and white chevron but no brand name, and to a promotion in Germany two years ago. The campaign, conceived by the British agency TBWA Holmes Knight Ritchie, featured people, dressed entirely in red, wandering the streets. The purpose was revealed by newspaper ads stating: 'Marlboro is Red. Red is Marlboro.'

The advertising for Benson and Hedges and Silk Cut has also strongly linked these brands to gold and purple respectively, although these campaigns were established before complete bans on tobacco advertising appeared likely.

The Ash claim is denied equally vehemently by Philip Morris, the international owners of the Marlboro brand, and Rothmans, which has the UK licence. 'It's just fatuous,' says Daniel Oxbury of Rothmans. None the less, the argument is accepted within some tobacco industry circles, where such a strategy is defended. Peter Anderson of the Tobacco Advisory Council, the trade's representative body, says: 'Companies have to think about the ways they can reach customers if a ban goes through. It's easier for Marlboro because it has such a strong symbol.'

Another advantage for Marlboro is detected by Tom Porter, colour consultant to blue chip companies such as TCT and Barclays Bank. 'The consumer is gullible when it comes to colour,' he says. 'The Marlboro red conveys strength, power and instant satisfaction for the product. The advertising reduces communication to a flash of colour.'

Last week the Department of Health reported no drop in smoking by 11- to 15- year-olds between 1990 and 1992. And the Health Education Authority has called for a ban on the award-winning Regal cigarette advertising campaign featuring the gormless, wise-cracking Reg, now a cult figure among some children.

Next month European Community health ministers will meet to continue their consideration of the EC Commission's proposal for an outright ban on tobacco advertising. Belgium, current holder of the EC presidency, may propose a compromise formula that could split the blocking minority of states (including the UK) and allow imposition of a ban.

The current draft directive prohibits the display of tobacco brand names and logos anywhere other than at point of sale, but would not prevent the use of a distinctive colour on, for example, a tobacconist's shopfront or a sponsored racing car. Mr Anderson says: 'I'm sure the anti-tobacco lobby would look at ways you can close that off, but I don't think you can ban a colour. It's preposterous.'

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