Smoking ‘em out
HARLEY BATES is steaming. He pushes past the off-duty cop standing in front of his ranch and charges the reporter and photographer.
“Get the hell off my land!” he says.
“Sir, I’m a reporter ... “
“You’re scaring people taking their pictures as they drive in!”
A quarter of a mile away, the roof of a school bus crowns a small hill. Through a telephoto lens, tiny figures mill about. The reporter and photographer take turns looking for wisps of cigarette smoke.
So begins the third day of the 2004 Adventure Team, a 12-day hiking, four-wheeling and canyoneering extravaganza on Utah’s public lands and one of Philip Morris International’s most secretive -- and successful -- Marlboro promotions.
Forty-two young men and women from Europe, Latin America and Asia, selected from more than 1 million applicants, are playing cowboy at the company’s expense. (Because of legal constraints, Americans cannot participate.)
All contestants undergo a complex application process, each handing over their name, address and personal details about where they shop, what music they listen to and what they smoke. As more and more countries restrict tobacco advertising, the data allow the company to talk directly to its customers.
Marlboro marketers and outdoorsy camps -- doubling as focus groups -- whittled applicants down to a busload. The winners were flown in September to Moab, where Philip Morris showered them with fleece, leather and custom-made cowboy hats. By day, they crossed Utah’s public lands, playing on ATVs and horseback, and by night, they retired to private ranches, like Bates’. In return, they surrendered their names and photos for future advertisements.
At the front gate, standing on public land, the reporter starts asking questions.
“Sir, the public has a right to know how Utah’s public lands are used to promote cigarettes ... “
“Nonsense!” yells Bates.
The photographer raises his camera. The reporter stands a little straighter and sucks in his gut.
Critics have long attacked the Marlboro Adventure Team’s use of public spaces, arguing that America’s canyons, deserts and picturesque birthrights shouldn’t help sell cigarettes.
In response, during the last five years Philip Morris has gone underground, operating on both public and private land and keeping as low a profile as possible.
Which begs the question: Why bother? Why fly halfway around the world when the Alps, the Negev and the beaches of Micronesia are closer to the contestants? Is Utah really worth the trouble? And why does Moab, a magnet for environmental activists, turn a blind eye?
The answers, as John Wayne once noted, are “land and money, the two things that drive men mad.”
The reporter presses on: “We just want to speak with the team ... “
Bates invites the reporter to kiss a certain part of his anatomy and walks away. The rising sun begins its attack on the surrounding red rock towers. Then the cowboy stops and spits toward the interlopers.
The off-duty cop hooks a thumb in his belt and smiles. “Welcome to Marlboro Country,” he says.
This is not America
The tobacco invasion of Utah began in Chicago in 1962.
Just 10 years earlier, Marlboro cigarettes suffered from an image problem. The brand was smoked primarily by women and was one of Philip Morris’ biggest commercial disappointments. The company asked ad wizard Leo Burnett, famous for multimedia blitzkriegs featuring characters like the Jolly Green Giant, for help.
“I said, ‘What’s the most masculine symbol you can think of?’ ” Burnett recalled in a 1972 documentary. “One of these writers spoke up and said a cowboy. And I said, ‘That’s for sure.’ ”
Eight months after the campaign began, Marlboro sales had increased 5,000%. The ads depicted real cowboys on real cattle drives. In the early 1960s, marketers shifted the focus from cowboys to the Southwest’s lonely, rugged expanses, and Marlboro Country was born. Since the 1970s, the brand has been the No. 1 seller worldwide.
The 1990s, however, presented new challenges. One of the early Marlboro Men announced he was dying of lung cancer and, at a shareholders’ meeting, berated the chairman of Philip Morris. Multiple companies drew fire for promoting their brands with cartoon-like advertising (think Joe Camel) that critics said enticed children to smoke. In 1998, as lawsuits filed by state attorneys general threatened to undo the tobacco industry, cigarette makers agreed to pay $246 billion over 25 years to state coffers and curtail some forms of advertising. By then, however, Philip Morris had turned its attention to Eastern Europe, Latin America and Asia, where more smokers and fewer regulations beckoned. Commercials showing Marlboro Country were ubiquitous overseas.
Philip Morris relies on the Marlboro Adventure Team to extend its reach. At the inaugural event in 1982, 16 Germans descended on Moab and quickly destroyed one jeep, three motorcycles and themselves. Photographers captured it for a new ad campaign, and the Marlboro Adventure Team concept took off. Moab has held the event almost every year since then with support from the local community.
Back at Bates’ ranch, the school bus speeds away. The reporter and photographer, choking on dust, follow in their rental car. Twenty minutes later, the bus parks near the Colorado River and team members begin transferring bags to a canvas-enshrouded pontoon motorboat idling along the red clay banks. The reporter and photographer approach the group in the public parking lot.
“Can I ask you a few questions?” the reporter asks one of the American guides.
“Dude, you’ve been told to stay away! All right? I’ve got nothing to say!” John is a muscular young man in his 20s with big teeth who gives only his first name. “If you don’t leave, I’m going to hit you!”
The reporter eyes John’s threatening muscles and boulder-sized teeth. Near the boat, a gaggle of slim, attractive men and women converse in broken English and watch.
“Hey, can I ask you guys a few questions?” the reporter shouts to break the tension. They only stare back.
“Go away!” one woman yells.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, the Marlboro team changed its focus from macho burly men to more average smokers. The implied message is easy to understand: Everyone can be a Marlboro Man; all they need is to love the outdoors, love adventure and, of course, love smoking.
“Why are you bothering us?” the woman asks. “This is not American.”
The reporter would like to correct her on that point. Where are Woodward and Bernstein when you need them? John steps closer, clenching his fists.
In previous years, American journalists joined the team. This year, however, team members, according to company executive Francois Moreillon, asked that Americans not intrude on their trip. Philip Morris agreed. “We want the winners to experience the freedom of America,” explains Moreillon. “And we find this is easiest when Americans are not part of the event.”
Another team member points at the crouching photographer taking pictures of the boat. “This is not America,” he says. It seems a common sentiment around here. “This,” he points to the glowing canyon, walls of gold and ochre that, rumor has it, once hid Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, “is America. You are nothing.”
The boat cuts across water shimmering with reflected sun, plunges between stone cliffs and disappears.
Follow the money
That Moab -- known for its buttes, meadows and air so clean it stings the lungs -- is home to the Marlboro Adventure Team may seem odd. Throughout the 1990s, national antismoking groups approached Utah’s state legislators, a largely antismoking, pro-Mormon group, and asked, in effect, What Would Jesus Smoke? The Legislature hedged, first by passing one of the nation’s most vigorous public smoking bans and then persuading Philip Morris to keep the team in Moab.
Jesus, apparently, was no match for greed. Last year, overseas visitors spent about $174 million in Utah, and the Marlboro team alone brings $2 million to Moab’s lonely coffers. In the past, city residents have protested against oil drilling, thumper trucks, road extensions, new jeep trails, dismantling wilderness protection, sound pollution and even murals, but when the team’s jeeps drive through town, residents come out and wave.
“There’s a lot of money at stake,” says Rick Donham, supervisor of Moab’s community substance abuse center. “If we protested, it would make us very unpopular.”
“This is your typical ... little town that is beautiful and filled with greedy hotel owners,” says Aubrey Davis, 26, an employee at an independent bookstore that holds poetry readings and sells anti-Bush stickers.
“Plus, the Mormon church is antismoking,” she says, as she lifts her pack of smokes. “And if the church is against it, I’m for it.”
Even so, Philip Morris tries to be invisible. The company is never mentioned in land-use applications, which are filed by International Adventure Tours, the Moab company responsible for the logistics. Philip Morris and International Adventure Tour employees refuse to speak to the press. Jeeps and motorbikes used by the team, once stamped with Marlboro logos, are now simply painted red.
Auf Wiedersehen, baby
Philip Morris has heard about “complications with the press.” Tipped off by weeks of intrusive phone calls and field reports from team employees, the company has flown in two representatives from Europe.
The previous evening the reporter and photographer, determined to speak to an actual team member, waited by a public campground carved into the dry cliffs overlooking Moab.
When two team employees drove up in an SUV, the reporter pulled his car across the path. They wheeled around him, sending up plumes of dust, and the reporter followed, destroying headlights and compressing vertebrae across pitted rock trails that run beside 100-foot crevasses.
Eventually, the team car stopped, and the window rolled down.
The reporter approached the vehicle.
“We just want to know ... “ he began.
“I hate you!” a crying woman screamed at him from the passenger’s seat. The car took off again.
Now Philip Morris wants to talk.
“We will make you a deal,” says Moreillon. “We will let you join the team tomorrow if you stop scaring people.”
Scaring people? The reporter and photographer have acted well within their rights; this is after all public land. But Moreillon is a kind man who spends his spare time promoting rock bands in Switzerland where he lives. He is hardly a merchant of death, as the rap has it with most cigarette executives. A deal is struck.
The next morning the reporter and photographer join six team members mounting horses for a daylong ride. Leading the trip is a familiar face, cowboy Harley Bates.
The team members, ranging in age from 22 to 24, are nice and goofy, like American kids but from Israel, Latvia, Spain and the Philippines. “I filled out the application in class because, you know, I like to smoke and I like free trips,” says Jose Luis Garcia, 22, from Spain. “And the class was boring.”
Another team member is trying to decide whether to become a biologist or a dancer. “They seem very similar jobs to me,” says Elizabete Piuse, who’s also 22 but from Latvia.
The team is much less ominous than the secrecy surrounding the event. In fact, most members are unaware of the controversies and battles that brought them here. They simply feel lucky to be in America, birthplace of the most iconic cigarette imagery in the world.
The Philip Morris representatives watch protectively. Why, the reporter asks Moreillon, is it so important to be here, in Moab?
“America is Marlboro Country. There is no other place that is so free,” he replies.
At the head of the pack, Bates is offering a graduate course in frontier free enterprise, explaining how foreign competition has undermined American ranching.
As if on cue, the riders pick up a trail meandering next to a private hunting preserve. Tall, waving branches of nearby pines shade the team, and Bates’ dog scampers around, searching for scents under a tree where a sign warns trespassers they may be shot.
“We love this land,” Moreillon continues. “But America scares everyone a little.” Some of this year’s winners, he says, citing security concerns and opposition to U.S. foreign policy, declined to join.
The ride continues into an aspen forest before descending into a long green valley. A colt, led by one of the guides, spooks and breaks free, charging down a steep path, kicking other horses before he’s caught. The sudden explosion unsettles a few of the team members, who seem to loosen up during a cigarette-and-lunch break.
The reporter is able to ask a few more questions. Who are these people? Who actually smokes like this anymore? What do their mothers think?
“I don’t actually smoke. I’m a med student,” says Spanish team member Anna Mascaraque, 24.
The reporter leans forward. Now we’re getting somewhere. A Marlboro representative bursts into sight. Julia Werner, a German Philip Morris employee, is built like a small tank.
“You don’t smoke ... ?” the reporter begins to ask. Werner drowns out his words.
“OK, end of interview! You are all done! You are enticing them to admit they are not smokers and asking very rude questions! Your invitation is over!”
The reporter and the photographer exchange glances. The group goes silent.
“We don’t really care if they smoke ... “ the reporter begins.
“You can just leave!” the Philip Morris representative shouts. “You are very rude! We never ask these rude questions in Europe!”
The air is growing sharp with chill. The reporter realizes he has no idea where he is or how to find the car. Team members shuffle farther away. There is the faint but distinct howl of some far-off animal.
“We just want to understand why ... “
“Then why do you ask such strong questions?” Werner yells. “You try to make everyone feel bad! This is why we exclude Americans!”
The air is getting colder. The reporter and photographer turn and stare at Bates, who is watching from his horse. If they have any hope of getting out of here, it is with him. “Don’t worry,” he says. “We’ll make sure you get a ride back to your car.”
He turns his horse and begins trotting away. A guide shouts at Bates: “Ah, that’s Marlboro Country, huh?”
Bates looks at the guide, and scoffs. “You know what’s real Marlboro Country?” he asks. “The graveyard.” He looks into the air and digs his heels into his horse, riding toward the mountains, an American cowboy to the end.
Times staff writer Charles Duhigg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.