Reports on group discussions with young adult female Marlboro Lights smokers in regard to perception of Virginia Slims brand imagery. Details findings. Concludes that young adult female Marlboro Light smokers are not an appropriate target for Virginia Slims.
- Philip Morris
- Named Person
- Brown, Murphy
- Dean, James
- Eastwood, Clint
- Gibson, Mel
- Wayne, John
- Named Organization
- Leo Burnett Creative Research Council
- Marlboro Lights
- Virginia Slims
- Thesaurus Term
- Young Adults
- Market Segmentation
- Brand Image
- Marketing Research
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WITH WOMEN MARLBORO
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As part of our creative exploration for Virginia Slims, it was
decided that some in-depth feedback from female Marlboro Light
smokers concerning their view of VS brand imagery would be help-
To that end, we conducted two group discussions with young adult
(25-30 years old) female Marlboro Light smokers. The discussion
format followed the same pattern as for the groups with VS users
held in early April (Full outline is appended). The groups were
held at the Leo Burnett Creative Research Workshop in Chicago on
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a. Smoking Habits and Attitudes
In spite of the fact that the ML smokers in this study did not
differ from the VS smokers in terms of their education or socio-
economic group, we noted that they held very different attitudes
towards the smoking controversy than did VS smokers. To begin
with, they voiced none of the conflict or concern for non-smokers
which so dominated the VS smokers' discussions. Indeed, in both ML
groups, the subject of non-smokers' attitudes towards, perceptions
of, and reactions to non-smokers had to be probed for - it simply
was not a top-of-mind issue for these women.
To be sure, these women were certainly aware that smoking is an
"issue" and that there is societal pressure on smokers not to
smoke in public places; that's why there were so many comments in
the room to the effect of, "It's nice to be someplace where it's
okay to smoke." Further, a few of them made references to being
"more concerned about smoking as I age," or referred to past
attempts to quit smoking, or to the possibility that "at some
time" in the future they would quit smoking. But those comments
were few and far between.
Additionally, they differed most from VS smokers in that the VS
smokers tended to empathize with non-smokers and to view the
controversy as "My problem;" conversely, ML smokers did not give
non-smokers any quarter and clearly saw the issue as "their (non-
smokers') problem." As a result of this attitudinal difference
between the two brand franchises, there were distinct differences
in smoking behaviors: for example, where some VS smokers said that
they wouldn't smoke in public places (even when allowed) because
they didn't want to annoy (or incur the disapproval of) non-smok-
ers, ML smokers said,
"I can understand why you can't smoke in an airplane -
there's no place for the smoke to go. But in other places,
if it's bothering (a non-smoker), let them move, not me.
They've got their (non-smoking) sections, this is mine."
It appeared that part of the reason that ML smokers did not feel
the societal pressures that VS smokers did is that they seemed to
live much more in a "world of smokers." That is, where VS smokers
tended to feel "isolated," as part of a small, and dwindling,
minority group, many (though, certainly, not all) ML smokers told
us, "All (or most of) my friends (or family) smoke." Further, ML
smokers denied that being a smoker was in any way a social liabil-
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ity: while many VS smokers felt that, "Men don't want to get
involved with a woman who smokes," ML smokers all seemed to find
plenty of smoking males who wanted to date (or live with) them.
And not only were these ML smokers unconcerned about possible
rejection by non-smokers, they, in fact, seemed to be doing the
"If a guy doesn't like me because I smoke, then good-bye.
I'm not changing who I am for someone else."
"I'd rather be around smokers because they're a lot more
fun than non-smokers - they're more carefree, more out-
going. Non-smokers don't drink, they don't do anything."
"I've got a couple of friends who don't smoke, but they
don't give me any grief like most non-smokers. If they did,
I wouldn't hang out with them."
On the face of it, there appears to be a conflict between the VS
smoker's perception that "nobody smokes but me" and the ML smok-
er's view that "all my friends smoke." But there are many reasons
that these two views can exist and both be "correct".
For example, it may be that these women live in two different
worlds: that is, ML smokers may have grown up in smoking house-
holds and know a greater number of smokers, hence, are less con-
flicted about smoking because their usage is reinforced by others.
Or, perhaps, ML smokers (actively or unconsciously) seek out the
company of other smokers to reinforce their positive feelings
towards (and avoid non-smokers disapproval of) smoking. Or,
possibly, isolating smokers into areas where they are interacting
only with other smokers causes some smokers to feel "alone" while
it reinforces others' perception that "everyone around me smokes".
The likelihood is that all of the above are true to some extent.
However, the point to be made here is that we should not conclude
that because there are two diametrically opposed views expressed
by these two segments that one is "right" and the other is
We also observed that VS and ML smokers differed in another impor-
tant aspect, that being that ML smokers seemed to en'o smoking
more than did VS smokers. Unlike VS smokers, ML smokers talked a
great deal about the satisfaction and pleasure derived from
smoking and rarely attributed any negative effects to smoking.
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Further, these women seemed to be greater "connoisseurs" of tobac-
co than were VS smokers: whereas VS smokers seemed to see only
gross differences between brands or types of cigarettes ("light"
versus "harsh"), ML smokers talked much more specifically about
the differences in tobacco flavors and quality as determinants for
brand choice; indeed, they actually seemed to be "examining"
cigarettes more closely, noting subtle flavor, freshness, and
Certainly, these women thought of themselves as connoisseurs - or
at least, viewed smoking as a more important part of their lives
than did VS smokers: without probing, ML smokers commented, "I'm a
serious smoker:" "I love to smoke - I love everything about it;"
and, "I'm not a casual smoker." As a result, they eschewed "long,
thin women's cigarettes," not only because they were seen as
providing an inferior smoke ("like puffing on air"), but also
because, "They look like they're for women who really don't smoke,
but just want to pretend they do."
b. Brand Usage and Attitudes
When talking about their smoking history, it was clear that these
women had settled on their brand with less experimentation than
had the VS smokers, though ML was rarely the first brand they
smoked. Rather, it appeared that the first brand most of these
women smoked was a menthol (Newports mentioned most often); a
couple, however, started with "Reds" (Marlboro regular). But,
regardless of what brand they first smoked, it was chosen because,
"That's what my friends smoked." But, generally, those who started
with menthols said, "I hated the taste of menthol," and soon
switched to Reds.
At some point - and it differed for these various women - they
made the switch from Reds to ML, and it would appear that the
switch was made because of concerns over tar content, though only
a few directly stated that such was the case. However, others
alluded to the fact that, "If I could, I'd still be smoking Reds -
I really think they're the best."
However they got to ML's, once there, these women were extremely
loyal to their brand and claimed not to experiment with others. To
be sure, these women have, at one time or another tried other
brands, but that was under "forced" circumstances, i.e., "bumming"
from a friend who smoked another brand; inability to get ML's in a
"captive" situation (e.g., at a bar). But most were adamant that
even out-of-stocks would not force them to switch away from ML's:
"If they don't have (ML's), I get in my car and I go to the next
store;" and, "Cigarettes aren't like toilet paper -just any brand
won't do. You can tell the difference, and I don't like any other
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It is clear from the way these women talked about ML that ML is
not completely a brand unto its own (as is Virginia Slims) but
rather, ML is Marlboro, albeit in a slightly altered version. For
example, when asked what it is they liked about ML, smokers gener-
ally referenced Reds, i.e., "They taste close to/are indis-
tinguishable from Reds," "They have the same rich/good tasting/
flavorful tobacco as Reds," or, "They satisfy me (almost) as much
as Reds." At the same time, ML's were seen as providing a
"lighter," "smoother," and/or "less irritating" smoke. Others also
noted that, "The Marlboro name is a classic one in cigarettes: it
means the tobacco is quality and always fresh."
c. Brand Images
ML smokers agreed with VS smokers that the brand image of Marlboro
is "rugged, macho cowboys," "construction workers," "guys with
Zippo lighters," and is personified by such actors as John Wayne,
Clint Eastwood, James Dean, and Mel Gibson. However, unlike VS
smokers, they clearly delineated the brand imagery of Reds from
Lights: while they believed that ML may share some product charac-
teristics or some general "corporate quality" imagery with Reds,
by no means did it share Reds' machismo:
"Marlboro is male, but Lights is different - it's neu-
"One of the reasons I smoke Lights is that I prefer an
That these women did not personally empathize with Marlboro's
macho imagery may have been expected: however, it's important
to note that they did not distance themselves from the machismo
imagery merely because they saw it as excluding women. Rather,
these ML smokers seemed to feel that any gender stereotyping was
somewhat passe: for example, when talking about what it takes to
succeed in the workplace today, one ML smoker commented, "I don't
think a woman has to be macho; but then, I don't think a man has
to be, either."
Given that these women objected to any gender stereotyping, it
followed, then, that cigarette brands with "strictly female"
images didn't hold any appeal for them either: "I try to stay away
from women's cigarettes. I don't like (using any product) that
brands you as a woman." As a result, these women rejected such
"women's brands" as Capri and Eve, seeing them (just as VS smokers
had) as "frou-frou feminine" cigarettes, like "Pink drinks with
umbrellas in them," for "ultra-passive," "submissive women."
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But unlike VS smokers, these women didn't have a much higher
opinion of Virginia Slims; however, their negative view of the
brand took a couple of different forms, depending upon the level
of "life experience" or sophistication of the smoker.
The ML smokers in our sample, though all between the ages of
twenty five and thirty, seemed to break into two sub-segments. The
first segment, who tended to be at the younger end of the spec-
trum, were still "searching" for their identity, were still not
settled in a "real career," and as a consequence, were somewhat
intimidated by all the major life choices they were facing.
The second segment tended to be at the upper end of the age spec-
trum, and as they have had a few more life experiences under their
belts, were more confident, more sure of themselves and where they
were going, and saw "choices" as less daunting (to a large extent,
because they'd already made some).
While both segments of women viewed VS (and all other "women's
cigarettes) very negatively, their own life situations clearly
affected their specific image of Virginia Slims.
To the younger, less confident woman, VS was seen as a strident
feminist - and "feminist", in their minds meant "anti-male":
"She's a man basher. (Why?) Look at all the comments in the
date book - 'men have done you wrong'."
"She's a feminine supremacist - like the opposite of a male
chauvinist pig. (Why?) Because (in the ads they show) women
sneaking cigarettes - like some man is going to beat you if
"It's a tough image - a dyke; someone who has no use for
For these women, such an image was not only unattractive, but,
further, it was "old hat":
"It's outdated. It separates men from women. Who cares if
we've come a long way? I consider myself to be equal, but I
don't think about it a lot."
"It's making (it seem like there's) more of a problem than
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Conversely, the more experienced ML smokers' negative view of the
brand image was due to their perception that VS advertising con-
veyed an outdated, sexist, anti-feminist view of women:
"Virginia Slims doesn't understand the feminist movement at
all. The movement is about jobs, these ads aren't."
"This ad talks about how women couldn't get appointed to
the board. And then they show this blonde bimbo in torn
jeans, sitting in an explicit sexual pose. This woman
represents the '90's woman who's going to get appointed to
the board of directors? Come on!"
"Who are these women? They're dated, not at all hip or
representative of women today. She (white dress) is a cheap
model, she (brown pant suit) is a wannabe male, and she
(red pants suit) is a ditz right out of the '60's."
"This (woman in jeans ad) is such a superficial view of
women. I don't want to be hired because I'm blonde and I
might be a good fuck."
"They're trying to say women are liberated, but these women
are fluff, weak - their body language doesn't convey confi-
dence at all."
Further, these women felt that the meaning of "You've come a long
way" and the use of "Baby" was both inappropriate and insulting:
"Women don't want to be reminded of the bad old days."
"It's like congratulating us for coming out of someplace we
never should have been. It's like congratulating a Black
for coming out of slavery."
"Calling me 'Baby' is patronizing and offensive. It's the
kind of thing construction workers call out to you."
"(Our generation) didn't have to fight to get the vote, but
we still have to fight words like 'Baby'."
But all of the above comments should not be taken to mean that if
we revise VS advertising in some way, we can answer their objec-
tions and make VS more attractive to them. Unfortunately, it is
not only the specifics of our advertising imagery which they
object to: rather, they reject the basic "cigarette for women"
positioning - however that woman is portrayed:
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"The woman who smokes Virginia Slims is like Murphy Brown -
a woman working in a male world who has problems with her
"If you smoke a woman's cigarettes it's like using feminine
wiles instead of your integrity to get a job."
"I think that women who smoke Virginia Slims are looking
for something that reinforces who they are. So are men who
smoke Mariboros (Reds). Marlboro Light smokers aren't: I
don't need a cigarette to state who I am."
But is it true that smoking ML doesn't "state who I am"? Cer-
tainly, these women had a difficult time answering the question,
"What is ML's image?". Many denied that it had a user image at
all, and that it only conveyed, "Someone who smokes for satisfac-
tion," "Someone who appreciates quality tobacco."
But it's also true that these women referred to ML as "neuter,"
"androgynous," or "Equal - anybody can smoke it." Further, some
women in each group made references to liking B&H ads because,
"They show both men and women smoking it - just enjoying the
It would appear, then, that ML does have a user image, though
it may be that the user is more easily described by what he/she is
not than by what he/she is. And, further, it appears that what
these women had to say about themselves is key to understanding
what the image of ML is.
d. ML Smokers Personal Imagery
It is intriguing to note that when these women talked about them-
selves, about what a woman had to be in the '90's to succeed, and
how their lives differed from that of their mothers, their conver-
sation was not all that different from that of VS smokers.
For example, all of these women believed that a woman had to be
strong, self-reliant, "tough," and independent. They also believed
that women had to be prepared to compete with men on the job, even
though they felt that the deck was still stacked against them in
"I'm in training for the police force. And I know that I'm
going to have to take a lot of garbage because I'm a woman.
But, hey, if that's what it takes."
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"I'm in the record business and I know that the casting
couch still exists. You can't let that get to you. You've
got to force them to evaluate you on your terms."
But whereas VS smokers seemed to feel "making it in a man's world"
left them.needing some kind of badge of femininity, these ML
smokers felt that a "feminine badge" (in this case, a woman's
cigarette) weakened their position. To be sure, it was not that
these ML smokers felt that femininity was bad - indeed, they very
much valued what they called "feminine traits" - but, rather, they
felt that femininity works against women in the workplace. There-
fore, they needed to "set aside" feminine traits for their "pri-
"I think there are lots of positive sides of femininity -
openness, sensitivity, compassion. But I think those
(traits) can be abused by men in the workplace - they use
them to take advantage of you."
"I think women are more sincere, more caring, more communi-
cative than men. But I don't think those traits are as
valued (on the job) as being aggressive - male traits."
"I like being a woman; I have no desire to be a man. But I
think that society thinks 'feminine' means 'weak'."
"It's a nice thing to be called 'Baby' at one in the morn-
ing. On the job, it's an insult."
Certainly, these ML smokers felt that it is definitely "better for
women today" than in their mothers' time given that,
"We have more choices - we can choose what kind of life we
want. We don't have to get married right away and have
babies to have an identity."
"Our mothers' identity depended upon who they married. We
can be who we want."
But at the same time, they felt that it is more difficult for
women today in that "People are more confused about sex roles. In
the old days, women may have been frustrated, but they knew what
their role was." That difficulty is compounded by the fact that
they believe, "Most men still want a traditional woman."