Vice and style share a special understanding.
Madonna’s handgun heels. Supreme x St. Ides. Yes, even those HUF socks. Each trades on taboo, granting the wearer an aura of danger by association – all the rebellion, none of the risk. Fashion, after all, is danger. There’s an ineffable cool to causing shock in others.
Indeed, this is the fingers-crossed promise of “vice as style”: that the clothing is cool because it appears dangerous, but it doesn’t actually promote the business of bad. Instead, it riffs on the imagery of vice to grab eyeballs with that same provocative cool. The end goal is to sell clothes, not sin, and when that apparel is created by a fashion brand, that’s certainly the case.
But what if it, well… weren’t?
What if a massive multinational used the appeal of provocatively-branded clothes to sell the provocative thing itself? What if that same company then gamified how to get those clothes, turning apparel junkies into addicts of a different kind?
This is the story of the Marlboro Adventure Team: an outdoors gear line created by Marlboro to sell cigarettes to young people. The line didn’t just position smoking as an addictive game of “play-to-win.” It also sold more than 14 million garments, each one earned through ash and tar.
In the ’50s, cigarette maker Philip Morris had a problem. Marlboro, its hallmark brand, was seen by many as a cigarette for women – an image problem tantamount to suicide in the Don Draper, Frank Sinatra, male-dominated smoking market of postwar America.
To materialize its missing masculinity, Marlboro’s marketers mustered their own Mad Man, in the form of advertising legend Leo Burnett. Burnett dreamed up the “Marlboro Man”: a horse-riding, post-sitting, all-American cowboy. This rough-and-tumble character didn’t just present an idealized portrait of manhood – it also sold Marlboros. In 1972, it became the world’s best-selling cigarette brand.
For Philip Morris, however, trouble was brewing. Just one year before Marlboro’s ascendancy, US President Richard Nixon had banned cigarette ads from radios and televisions. In the background, due largely to the Surgeon General’s 1964 report linking tobacco use to lung cancer, the adult smoking rate was only decreasing – from 42.4% of all adults in 1965, to 33.2% in 1980, to a mere 25.0% in 1993.
Marlboro saw the writing on the wall. The brand had reliably lost 1% market share per year in an industry where a single percentage point is worth $150 million. Now, facing the economic recession of the early ’90s, Marlboro execs scrambled for ways to skirt cigarette advertising laws at a scale big enough to turn their business and renew interest in smoking.
For better or for worse, they found a way.
In 1984, a West German division of Philip Morris had begun a small sales promotion called “Marlboro Abenteuer (English: Adventure) Team.” Specially-marked displays and ads stoked the Abenteuer spirit, promising young Germans that the trip of a lifetime was just one envelope away. In the Team’s first year, a pool of thousands of applicants had been narrowed down to 16 lucky participants.
The winners were flown from Germany to the American West – the habitat of the idealized “Marlboro Man” – then taken through a multi-sport adventure tour over America’s Public Use Lands, accompanied by ad agency photographers who made their romp the focus of a new Marlboro campaign.
The Abenteuer Team ran throughout the duration of the ’80s as a niche, Europe-only campaign, but in 1993, with the brand struggling, Marlboro’s US marketers smelled opportunity. What followed was one of the largest promotional efforts in history:
First, the Adventure Team application was opened to Americans. “Application Request” forms could be found in print ads, auto show booths, and nearly everywhere it was still legal to advertise cigarettes. In the team’s later years, worldwide application counts supposedly reached into the millions.
Next, the Marlboro brand splashed images of earlier Adventure Team tours wherever it legally could. Since Jeeps climbing rocks and bikes crossing dunes didn’t constitute images of tobacco use, full-color, multi-page print ads in magazines targeting Marlboro’s young male demographic (Playboy, Rolling Stone, etc.) became a common sight.
Finally, Philip Morris unveiled the true core of the promotion: the “Adventure Team Catalog.”
Available almost everywhere Marlboros were sold, the Catalog contained outdoors gear and adventure apparel – everything the modern, sports-focused “Marlboro Man” could need.
The catch? This appealing, “style as vice” gear wasn’t bought with dollars. Not directly, at least.
To get Adventure Team gear, one had to first buy smokes. Millions of Marlboro packs with redeemable “Adventure Team” labels crowded shelves alongside free copies of the Catalog. Labels (worth five “Marlboro Miles” each) could be clipped, saved, then sent to the company along with an order form from the Catalog in exchange for items seemingly tailored for the 18-35 demographic.
In one disturbing case, the catalog was even sent to the home of a 10-year old boy, one who ostensibly would be impressed by the branded items and start collecting Miles.
So just what were these items? Here is but a small selection:
Patagonia-style snap fleeces.
Yes, even fanny packs.
It was lung cancer, gamified through an appeal to masculinity, then worn as apparel. While desert vacations made for good commercials, this branded gear – this leveraging of “style-as-vice” to sell the vice products firsthand — was the core of Malboro’s marketing push.
To quote Marlboro’s own internal pep reel: “For every person that makes the team, there will be another million who get the gear.”
Philip Morris International spent almost $200 million on the initial promotional plan behind Adventure Team, and in the words of Ellen Merlo, PMI’s then-VP of Corporate Affairs, “this promotion is if not the most successful, one of the most successful promotions ever run in the package-goods industry.”
More than 14 million Adventure Team items — including Patagonia-inspired fleeces, winter parkas, and yes, even lighters — were ordered by consumers.
That’s a hell of a lot of cigarettes.
Before long, the Marlboro Adventure Team had spread around the world. While the ’80s Adventure Team had appeared in Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, and Turkey, by 1994, the promotion included Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Malaysia. A video of the 1994 tour even aired on Malaysia’s largest TV channel.
Adventure Team applications (and Marlboro Miles apparel orders) flowed in from all over the globe. For Philip Morris, it was a runaway success. The US Government, however, saw things differently.
Back at the ranch, both advertising regulators and public health officials realized the extent of the impact caused by the Adventure Team.
For all intents and purposes, Marlboro’s marketers had thumbed their nose at tobacco advertising restrictions by blowing up a massive campaign that featured, instead of images of products or consumers, a slickly-produced “modernized” vision of the Marlboro Man. The result: millions of cartons sold, numerous loopholes exploited, and the very act of repeated cigarette smoking (which, by this point, had been inexorably linked to lung cancer) turned into a token-redemption Skinner box whose only rewards were branded apparel and a preventable death.
Legal action followed.
In 1998, 46 US states, 5 territories, and the District of Colombia signed the “Master Settlement Agreement,” a document further restricting cigarette advertising. The agreement explicitly banned paid product placement, outdoor advertising, tobacco sponsorship of sporting events, and advertising and marketing practices that targeted individuals under 18. It also required the five largest tobacco companies (of which Philip Morris is one) to pay the settling states a combined $10 billion per year, indefinitely into the future. While the Adventure Team isn’t specifically cited in the MSA, the scale, timing, and specific restrictions of the Agreement seem more than coincidental.
After 1998, the Marlboro Adventure Team limped along, doubling down on plays to markets where smoking rates remained relatively high (specifically in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East). Americans could no longer participate; by and large, apparel distribution via “Marlboro Miles” had stopped.
While a convoluted legal structure involving “the event [originating] outside US borders”, organized through a German company mysteriously called Adventure Tours GmbH allowed the event to still be held on American Public Lands, it had essentially been snuffed out.
A rather poetic coup de grace: by 2004, even “target market” participants admitted to LA Times reporters that they were non-smokers. Two decades after the first Abenteuer hit Utah, Marlboro had become the butt of its own joke.
As smoking rates continue to decline across much of the developed world, the ultimate legacy of the Marlboro Adventure Team appears more as desperation than innovation. In the words of Marlboro’s ad agency: “The Adventure Team brought the West into the ’90s context.” But Marlboro wasn’t playing from a position of strength – far from it. This was the decade of Jamba Juice and the Atkins Diet; of Clean Air Acts and the Honda Insight. There was no room for tar, smoke, and lung cancer in this cultural moment.
Just consider the backwardness of it all.
Tobacco, a crop which quickly depletes the soil its planted in, is promoted using the outdoors industry, a body which by and large cares deeply about the environment.
Smoking, an act which burns the lungs and the atmosphere, is gamified using sportswear, apparel meant for the sorts of activities that smoking makes difficult.
The Marlboro branding, a mark associated with an idyllic version of frontier toughness, is now a street-style statement due to its outmoded cachet, which in the words of John Mayer’s Instagram Stories, is “hilarious.”
At the end of the day, style reclaimed vice. Ashes to ashes, indeed.