Be Marlboro: Targeting the World's Biggest Brand at Youth

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In 2011, in Germany, Philip Morris International (PMI) launched a new mass media campaign to promote their re-vamped Marlboro brand. PMI recognised that “Innovation is not only about launching new products. Importantly, it is also about thinking differently and innovating in the way we market our brands to adult smokers and trade partners.”[1] Marlboro country and the synonymous Marlboro cowboy have been replaced with a different approach. According to PMI, the new campaign is targeted at 18-24 year olds and centres around principles of inspiration and decisiveness, where the young are told ‘Don’t be a Maybe. Be Marlboro.’[1]

Image 1. Be Marlboro billboard Germany, screengrab from Frederic de Wilde PMI Investor Day presentation, June 2012

Campaign Outline

The following information about PMI’s Be Marlboro campaign is sourced from a presentation by the tobacco company’s Senior Vice President of Marketing and Sales, Frederic de Wilde, at PMI’s 2012 investor day. [1]


In December 2011, campaign billboards appeared with a large black lettered ‘MAYBE’ written on a white background with the MAY crossed out with a red cross (Image 1). The billboards were not attributable to anyone. This was a deliberate omission as these ads were intended to act as a “teaser campaign” to arouse people’s interest.[2]

Subsequently, a few weeks later, the advertisements developed from this simple ‘maybe’ into ads offering two choices and the slogan ‘Don’t be a maybe. Be Marlboro’ (Images 2, 3 and 4). All images unless otherwise stated are taken from Frederic de Wilde's PMI Investor Day presentation, 2012.

According to PMI’s de Wilde, “Once the campaign concept was established, we started introducing image visuals to add emotional elements and anchor “Be Marlboro” in real situations.” De Wilde explained the concept of the youth-focused campaign by stating that “young adults feel overwhelmed by the flood of information and options that new technologies offer. In this time of uncertainty, they have very few life compasses that can provide them with guidance. With the new campaign, Marlboro encourages them to be decisive, trust themselves and follow their inspiration. The concept is very simple: there are three ways to react when faced with a decision: Yes, No, or Maybe. Marlboro does not believe in Maybes.” Accompanying each image in the gallery below is PMI’s intended take home message of each image as described by de Wilde.[2]

According to PMI, these campaigns were explicitly aimed at legal age smokers between 18 and 24. Organisations promoting health in Germany such as the German Cancer Research Center[sic] and ‘Forum Rauchfrei’ (Smoke-free Forum) do not agree, their counter response is described in the ‘Public Health Community’s Response’ section below.

Cinema Commercials

To accompany the billboard media in Germany, PMI also ran two adverts on the big screen in cinemas. An internet search for ‘Be Marlboro adverts’ produced a number of Be Marlboro ads. It is not known which, if any, of these examples were run in Germany. Three adverts of similar style but different content were found in the English language and two in Ukrainian. None were in German; although this does not mean that these ads could not have been aired in Germany as the billboard campaign was presented in English. The English ads were located on Vimeo and the Ukrainian on You Tube. Whilst the ads were still available at the time of writing, it is possible that they will be removed from the public domain.

This English language [video] seems to suggest that the Be Marlboro campaign may have taken place in Indonesia or only that it was created there by the production agency Indonesia Kreatif. The ad, posted on the Vimeo site on 8th May 2012, starts with a breaking dawn and a male voiceover which says,

“No poems finished, no mountains climbed, oceans crossed, no freedom won, no city lights, no love letters, this world would be nothing if we just said maybe, so let it out, set it free. Don’t be a maybe. Be Marlboro.”

Throughout the ad, there are images of young attractive people taking part in inspirational activities.

[Another] posted on 8th November 2011, by Avenida Films, a Columbian production company which specialises in cinema advertising, has no voice over other than a ‘Be Marlboro’ statement at the end. The ad, backed by a thumping dance chill-out track, features images of young, attractive and healthy looking men and women having fun, swimming and diving, travelling, dancing around a campfire on the beach, dancing in clubs and posing for group pictures together.

Image 13. Don't be a Maybe Party Stuttgart, screengrab of a You Tube video made by a party goer

A third English language [Be Marlboro ad] posted by [Palermo Films S. A.], an ad agency with a base in both Argentina and Uruguay, shows similar images to the other ads; young people having a good time. The voice over says,

“Be real, be free, be fearless, be inspiration, be celebration, be everything you are, and everything you wanna be. Be Marlboro.”

Image 12. "At this Marlboro party, couragous decisions count." Don't be a Maybe Party Cologne, Prinz Cologne Magazine, June 2012

Promotional Events

In Germany, there is evidence to suggest that the Be Marlboro campaign has been promoted in specialist ‘Don’t be a Maybe' club nights. It is known that some of these parties were held in a secret location, with people receiving VIP tickets weeks before the party and told of a time, date and meet location. Don't be a Maybe parties are known to have occurred in Stuttgart, Munich, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Cologne (Image 12).[3][4][5][6] [7] From the meeting point party goers were transported (by coach) to another venue where an elaborate DJ set with Marlboro branding was waiting. Big LED screens flashed up the Be Marlboro message of Don’t Be a Maybe. Be Marlboro (Image 13). At the parties, attendees were given drinks vouchers and attractive young brand ambassadors dressed in the Marlboro brand colours handed out free Marlboro cigarette samples.

Public Health Community’s Response

In 2012, at the time of writing, the tobacco advertising law in Germany stated[8] that tobacco advertisements were prohibited on television, radio, in print media and on the Internet, however, outdoor advertising on billboards was permitted as was advertising in the cinema after 6pm. In terms of tobacco advertisement content in Germany, the tobacco industry was not permitted to:

  • target young people
  • make any statements that the inhalation of tobacco smoke is worthy of emulation
  • make any claims on health
  • provide misleading information
  • make any reference to ‘natural’ nature of ingredients

It is arguably the case that, with their Be Marlboro campaign content, PMI violated at least two of these content rules. Firstly, the advertisements are explictly targeted at young people. De Wilde stated that it was targeted at youth between 18 and 24.[2] What is not clear however, is how PMI could ensure that these ads appeal only to their target audience, namely ‘Legal age smokers’, and not to youngsters under the age of 18. The use of young, attractive models in addition to the use of hedonistic slogans are likely to appeal to youth in general. Secondly, the billboard with the slogan ‘Maybe never lights up the night’ (Image 11) arguably promotes emulation of smoking behaviour.

In response to the Be Marlboro campaign, the German Cancer Research Center, along with the University of Hamburg issued press releases which publicly asked the German minister for consumer protection, Ilse Aigner to take action against this campaign. Aigner referred this issue to the 16 German states for consideration. Shortly afterwards the Berlin-based organisation ‘Forum Rauchfrei’ released a statement declaring that 12 of the 16 states felt that the Be Marlboro campaign was against the law and that they would ask Philip Morris to withdraw them.[9]

Image 14. Indoor Kiosk advertising, Forum Rauchfrei, August 2012
Image 15. Screen grab of electronic change trays from

As a result of accusations that the campaign is illegally marketed towards youth, Philip Morris has withdrawn its billboards and cinema ads. However, information from Forum Rauchfrei suggests that the Be Marlboro campaign is still visible at the point of sale (Image 14).[10] In tobacco shops and service stations Marlboro back lighted wall displays adorn the tobacco kiosks at the point of sale and branded change trays are used when giving customers change in these locations. In more recent times, electronic change trays have been used, whereby digital adverts can be displayed. The German Cancer Research Center has said that the Be Marlboro campaign is being shown on these electronic change trays. For an unbranded image of an electronic change tray see Image 15.

The head of the German Cancer Research Center,[11] Professor Wiestler, has called for an immediate end to all cigarette advertising in Germany.

Be Malboro Violates Voluntary Agreements in Germany and Article 13 of the FCTC

Since the 1960s in Germany advertising restrictions have resulted from a series of voluntary agreements with the tobacco industry. In 1993 as the Ministry of Health in Germany announced that as part of a voluntary agreement, the tobacco industry would not, amongst a long list of other restrictions, produce advertising with models under the age of 30 and would not include images of activities that are typical of young people.[12] It is disputably the case that the models used in the billboard ads and certainly in the cinema ads appear younger than 30 years of age and are engaged in activities that people younger than this age threshold take part in.

Furthermore, although tobacco advertising in certain forms is currently permitted in Germany, as signatories of the World Health Organisation’s, Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the world’s first global health treaty, Germany is obliged to take steps prohibit tobacco advertising in line with Article 13. The guidelines providing advice for the implementation of Article 13 recommend that:

“A comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, should cover:

  • all advertising and promotion, as well as sponsorship, without exemption;
  • direct and indirect advertising, promotion and sponsorship;
  • acts that aim at promotion and acts that have or are likely to have a promotional effect;
  • promotion of tobacco products and the use of tobacco;
  • commercial communications and commercial recommendations and actions;
  • contribution of any kind to any event, activity or individual;
  • advertising and promotion of tobacco brand names and all corporate promotion; and traditional media (print, television and radio) and all media platforms, including Internet, mobile telephones and other new technologies as well as films.”[13]

In Germany, the German Cancer Research Center has made Germany’s contradictory position clear - Germany have ratified the FCTC but yet tobacco advertising still persists.[8]

Appeal for Information

According to de Wilde in his presentation, Be Marlboro is a new global campaign and that “Be Marlboro will be deployed in 40 markets during 2012.” It is not known whether this has occurred. If you have seen the Be Marlboro campaign in your country, and would like to let us know, please get in touch with


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Frederic de Wilde, Philip Morris International Investor Day – Brand Portfolio and Commercial Approach, 21 June 2012
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Frederic de Wilde, Philip Morris International Investor Day – Brand Portfolio and Commercial Approach - Script, 21 June 2012
  3. Stuttgart Electro Party 21.07.2012: Marlboro Don’t be a Maybe, August 2012, accessed October 2012
  4. Munich Electro Party 21.07.2012: Marlboro Don’t be a Maybe, August 2012, accessed October 2012
  5. Frankfurt Electro Party 23.06.2012: Marlboro Don’t be a Maybe, June 2012, accessed October 2012
  6. Hamburg Electro Party 04.05.2012: Marlboro Don’t be a Maybe, May 2012, accessed October 2012
  7. Cologne Electro Party 16.06.2012: Marlboro Don’t be a Maybe, June 2012, accessed October 2012
  8. 8.0 8.1 German Cancer Research Center, Cigarette advertising in Germany – Marketing a health endangering product, 29 May 2012, accessed October 2012
  9. M, Saal, Marlboro unter Beschuss: Droht den ‘Maybe’- Plakaten das aus?, 2 August 2012, accessed October 2012
  10. Forum Rauchfrei, Kiosk im Bahnhof Spandau, 27 August 2012, accessed October 2012
  11. German Cancer Research Center, accessed October 2012
  12. Bundesministerium für Gesundheit Pressemitteilung Nr. 41. Zigarettenwerbung um Schu¬len wird abgebaut., 1993, accessed October 2012
  13. WHO FCTC, Guidelines for implementation of Article 13 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (Tobacco advertising. Promotion and sponsorship), 2003, accessed October 2012