Mad Men musings

At this point I think the only interesting thing about Mad Men (to me) is the disconnect between the amount of attention it gets from the media and marketing crowd, and the number of people who actually watch it.

Did you know, to cite a random example, that a recent rerun of Two And A Half Men got nearly triple the audience of the Mad Men season premiere (which apparently was the latter show’s largest audience ever)?

Mad Men Musings: Changing Times

On the off chance that anybody is wondering why I haven’t added to my Mad Men Musings series — I wrote about almost every episode of the series in its first season, and not once in its second — it’s mostly because the new season, to me, hasn’t really presented a lot of very interesting material related to commercial persuasion, past v. present. That material has faded into the background of plots I find less interesting (will Don’s wife figure out he’s cheating etc. etc.).

There’s one sort-of-kind-of exception to that, though. This is the subplot involving the hiring of “young” creatives, whose basic value to the agency is their hard-wired understanding of youth culture. There’s clearly a parallel to that going on in the commercial persuasion business today. Aside from experiments like the one the NYT wrote about yesterday (“pop up agency” of twentysomethings created within traditional agency), young people are frequently spoken of by marketers as though they are either members of a different species or, possibly, have arrived here from another planet. The idea is that unless you’re one of “them” you can never never really “get” what makes “them” tick. It’s a bit goofy. Not unlike the professional young people hired by the 1962 ad agency depicted on Mad Men. But there are, I think, some interesting differences. Read more

Mad Men Musings: Bad memories

Poor Don Draper! Fresh off a wildly successful presentation that landed Kodak as a client — leaving the execs slack-jawed in amazement at his spiel about their slide wheel as a “carousel” that reveals all that is truly important to us in life — Don goes home to find his family has left for Thanksgiving vacation without him. For a moment, he apparently envisioned arriving just in time to make up for his previously dickish behavior by joining them for a journey to the in-laws’ … but no. They’re gone, and all he can do is sit alone on the stairs, perhaps reflecting on the fact that his bullshit has gotten so good that evidently even he believes it. Or he did. For a minute. Read more

Mad Men Musings: Then and now

Several scenes in the most recent Mad Men rated as either interesting, highly pleasing, or both. The most pleasing was the afternoon work party at a local bar, particularly the moment when all the ladies squealed when “The Twist” came up on the jukebox. It’s such a spontaneous moment of joy, it makes you wish you’d been young in 1960. Then again, it’s just a TV show, so who knows.

One of the interesting scenes was un-hero Don’s steamrolling of clients in a pitch meeting. The geezer running the cosmetics company client seems skeptical of the creative direction the ad men have come up with, and Don basically says: You’re a loser, get a clue, and until you get a clue, get out of my face. The geezer rolls over and does what he’s told.

I was once in a pitch meeting with a very hot ad firm presenting ideas to a very cold company. I assume the dynamic in such moments is never what it would be if there weren’t a reporter sitting there, but here’s how things were similar, and different. One difference is that nobody wore a suit: The sartorial power-signifier uniform was premium denim, worn basically by everybody but me. Another difference was an absolute lack of argument. The main similarity, however, was that the ad firm dominated the meeting in every meaningful way. There was some guarded skepticism, but no real objection to even the nuttiest ideas. The power, in that meeting as in Mad Men was with the agency (albeit in a different way).

Much of the ramp-up hype about Mad Men included assertions that the show was about a time when Madison Avenue was all-powerful, and this scene seemed designed to make the point. On other hand, the giveaway was Don’s mention that the client was the number four player in its industry. I have a feeling this is what sets the power tempo today as in the past: Basically, how scared is the client? How desperate is the client? How willing is the client to believe that these agency guys (then or now) somehow have the secret formula for saving their sorry ass? All of which is why my favorite bit about that whole thing was Don at the end saying, basically: So anyway, let’s hope it works out. “It’s not a science,” he grins. Indeed. My guess is that it’s not so different today.

Which brings me to the third noteworthy scene, which was both interesting and pleasing: Don hanging out with his bohemian mistress and her absurd beatnik pals. (“We’re going to get high and listen to Miles,” one of them deadpans.) There’s an almost comical air of Us vs. Them in the scene, as the beatniks mock Don for his complicity in creating The Lie that we need more stuff, and toothpaste will solve our problems, and so on — all the sorts of things that have made people like this so tedious for the entire history of people like this. I think one of them actually calls him a “square.” Don’s palpable contempt is a laff riot — “I hate to break it to you, but there is no Big Lie, there is no System” — and he’s unapologetic about drawing a bright line between himself and these sentimental bozos. He’s part of society, and they’re not, and they can kiss his ass.

Well, you already know what’s different today on this score. Today’s equivalent of the beatnik counterculturalist would not say, “Your toothpaste can’t solve our problems.” He would say, “Your toothpaste needs to sponsor an artist series if you want to connect with my demo.” And the ad-man wouldn’t say kiss my ass, punk. He’d say, “Yeah, we’re talking to Banksy.” Also, everyone in the scene would be dressed exactly alike. Maybe that’s progress, and maybe it isn’t. But a marketing pro openly sneering at the fauxhemians to grow up already? That’s about as likely today as a chorus of squeals greeting a pop hit from a jukebox in a bar. But I think it would be — almost — as much fun to experience firsthand.

[Complete Mad Men musings archive here.]

Mad Men Musings: The pleasure of manipulation

I don’t know how many scores of advertising and marketing professionals I’ve met over the years. I do now that I almost always ask them what got them into the business. And that to date, precisely one has mentioned an interest in persuasion. Why is that answer so rare? Persuasion is an interesting subject, and it’s at the heart of the advertising business. Maybe it’s just not polite to talk about it. I wouldn’t know.

I bring this up because there was very little ad-talk in the most recent episode of Mad Men, and if I want to keep going with my little series about the show, I have no choice but to go a little meta this time. So: I think it’s pretty clear that our (un)hero Don is very interested in persuasion — in fact, he’s interested in manipulation, persuasion’s even-less-polite-to-discuss cousin. And of course when I say he’s “interested” in manipulation, I mean he has a near-pathological drive to manipulate and control others.

This manifests itself amusingly when he works off whatever weird hostility he has toward his boss by tricking the older man into a 23-flight stairwalk, causing the poor sap to vomit up his 24-oyster, multi-martini, and cheesecake lunch in front of some important clients. Heh heh heh.

It was a weird moment in what was definitely the weirdest — and I think the best — episode of Mad Men to date. Don’s wife slapping a neighbor in the supermarket, Young Turk Guy delivering a bizarre monologue about how great it would be to eat what you kill as fondles his new rifle, the Dreiser-ish secretary he delivers it to offering an impossible-to-read confirmation that such an existence does sound ideal, etc. Some of this material can be read as dealing with How To Be A Man In This Modern Age, but some of it is just wack. In a good way.

Still, I hope they get back to more ad-talk next week.

Oh, and speaking of ad-talk, persuasion, and going meta: There is of course a marketing firm marketing this show about marketing. It’s called Crew Creative Advertising. I’m a little annoyed to have learned this by way of a post on Madison Avenue Journal, which says, “They contacted us early this week with a request to pre-promote this based on your robust response to date!”

Well! Nobody from Crew Creative has contacted me. What’s up with that? Don’t they want to persuade me to persuade the Murketing audience to watch their client’s show? Maybe the problem is that I haven’t been sufficiently upbeat about the program itself. Today’s post is pretty nice, though. Maybe I only did that to manipulate Crew Creative. But if so, I guess I shouldn’t talk about it.

[Complete Mad Men musings archive here.]

Mad Men Musings: Who’s a moron?

So this piggish ad exec and his colleague are pondering the mystery of women as they sort through their agency’s research on behalf of a cosmetics client, and the piggish guy says, “I don’t speak moron. Do you speak moron?”

Apart from suggesting to the Mad Men audience — once again — that the typical 1960 ad agency employee held a truly contemptuous view of women, surely the line is an intentional echo of David Ogilvy’s famous observation: “The consumer isn’t a moron,” he admonished his fellow ad-makers in Confessions of An Advertising Man, published in 1963. “She is your wife.”

Ah, but on Mad Men, most advertising professionals seem to think their wives are morons. So it’s no great surprise when the secretarial pool is herded into a room to try on lipsticks, and the ad gang watches through two-way glass, amusing themselves with a barrage of nasty and condescending remarks about the women. Then again, Mad Men itself doesn’t seem that impressed with the female consumer of 1960. When one secretary declines to paw through the free samples, and manages to articulate an opinion that rises above the incoherence of her peers, she’s treated like singular creature: A thinking female. She’s treated that way by the fictional ad men, but also, really, by the show itself.

Now that she herself has apparently been drafted into the efforts to create advertising to sell lipstick, we’ll see what the writers have her come up with.

The interesting thing about Ogilvy’s famous quote is that he was making a broader point about the importance of facts in advertising. What the consumer wants, he wrote, is “all the information you can give her.” Amusingly, he suggests that in a market where “competing brands are more and more alike” (sound familiar?), sometimes the best strategy is to list facts that are true of all products in a given category. For instance, his ads for Shell gave consumers facts, “many of which other gasoline makers could give, but don’t.” (We saw this idea deployed by Mad Men central character Don in the first episode, for client Lucky Strikes.)

In other words, Ogilvy was really pretty much neutral on whether the consumer was a moron. His point was that the consumer doesn’t want to be treated like a moron. The ad pro may or may not be fluent “in moron,” as our piggish friend above put it, but better not use it to communicate. That’s an interesting distinction to think about next time you hear a contemporary marketing expert going on about today’s savvy consumers. Let’s face it: We’ll never never know what they’re saying behind the two-way glass.

[Complete Mad Men musings archive here.]

Mad Men Musings: Secrets and Lies

The not-very-subtle theme of the most recent episode of Mad Men was secrets & lies — or, to say it more politely, “privacy.” Our (non)hero Don is not only juggling his boho girlfriend, suburban wife, and at least two other potential love interests, he also turns out to be living a plot-line right out of General Hospital: Secret identity, suddenly-appearing sibling, endless staring into space for dramatic effect, etc. No surprise, given all this, that he barely needs to bother brainstorming ideas for a banking client, suggesting that what the modern man of 1960 really needs is a “private” account. That is, a second set of books that he can conceal from the family, to fund his double life. All the fellow ad-men see the wisdom of this immediately.

The client does too — and in fact laughs with glee. Why? Because, he tells Don: Plenty of his customers are already doing this, “we just hadn’t figured out a way to charge them for it. “

Damn! Could this show be any more cynical? (I’m not even mentioning the sub-plot in which the junior exec is pimping out his wife so he can publish a short story — which he wants to do for reasons of office rivalry, not literary ambition.) Don’s skill seems to come from his hard-wired instincts for manipulating a consumer nation motivated largely by a desire to keep its tissue of lies together. Meanwhile, his corporate clients just want to monetize the delusions and duplicity of the masses, and find it hi-lar-ee-us when they succeed.

As always, this can all be (reassuringly) read as comment on the phony conformity of the 1950s and the soul-rot it concealed, soon to be washed away by that whole 1960s hoo-ha that I’ve read all about. Usually I’m skeptical of this line of thinking, since it’s often pretty easy to draw parallels between the persuasion industry depicted in the show, and the real one of today. But this time, I admit, I’m going to hide behind the hope that this was an episode about an America that doesn’t exist anymore. The only alternative would be to conclude that our era of Botox, premium denim, no-money-down jumbo mortgages, and self-promotional Web presences isn’t based on authentic self-expression, but on delusions that, like Don, we defend by hurling wads of cash at any threatening reality-based counter-evidence. Even I’m not that cynical.

[Complete Mad Men musings archive here.]

Mad Men Musings

The primary client in the most recent installment of Mad Men was, of all companies, Bethlehem Steel. Since this follows Lucky Strikes and Right Guard in an aerosol can, I’m getting the feeling that the show’s creators like picking brands and products and firms that seemed mighty in 1960, and are irrelevant, marginal, or gone today. (Bethlehem Steel dissolved in 2003.) Anyway, protagonist Don makes one mildly interesting comment – about advertising’s frequent role of telling us something we already knew but hadn’t thought about lately.I thought maybe that would be the subject of today’s Musings, but this turned out to be Pete’s episode. He’s the junior agency guy with big ambitions and all that. We learn that he’s from some kind of blueblood family, and his cartoonishly WASP pop sneers at the ad business as a disgrace to the family name.

Later, we can kind of see Pop’s point. Since the initial pitch meeting sputtered, Bethlehem’s honcho is staying in New York overnight to give the agency another crack at new ideas. Pete is given the job of entertaining the codger – an assignment that, so far as I could tell, boiled down to lining up a couple of hookers. It’s never quite made clear that that’s what the young women are, but I’m not sure what other conclusion we’re supposed to draw. It’s all handled rather matter-of-factly.

Now, I’m not in the ad business, and never was. So I don’t know. But was this standard operating procedure at one time?

In any case, later in the episode when Don wants Pete fired, the move is blocked because the agency can’t afford to alienate the old-line power families of New York.

What’s interesting about all this is that it suggests 1960 was not, perhaps, the moment of ad-agency all-powerfulness that some observers of the show have suggested. Instead, maybe, it was a time when admen were still trying to shake their image as sleazy hucksters. Maybe they were trying to become respectable members of the professional class, but — suits and posh offices and suburban homes and fancy martinis aside — not quite making it yet.

Footnote: Clearly my Mad Men musings have had little to do with the show as, you know, a show. Basically, I’m not sure I’d be watching if I didn’t happen to have an interest in advertising, and how that business/practice/cultural form changed over the course of the 20th century. However, Time’s James Poniewozik makes a fairly convincing case for the show as pure entertainment, “showing an intriguing ability to change itself up from week to week.”

“Mad Men” Musings

“Honesty — it’s a good angle.”

This line, by one of the ad agency guys in the early scene in the most recent episode of “Mad Men” when Don and his colleagues are talking about the famous VW “Lemon” ad — which came out around 1960, when the series is set — was easily the episode’s highlight moment. (If you’ve never seen the “Lemon” magazine ad, here it is.) In its time, the VW campaign that this ad was part of was different because it did not engage in overt hyperbole. In fact, it subtly mocked the overt hyperbole of, you know, every other ad in the world. Various other print pieces poked fun at the empty planned-obsolescence style “advances” touted by most car ads, for example.

That’s the honesty part. The angle part is that the campaign gave a new image to a car that, as Mary Wells summarized in her memoir, had previous been seen as “small,” “ugly,” and “a Nazi car, too soon after the war.” This is alluded to in Mad Men; one character mentions that last time he’d seen a VW, he was throwing a grenade into it. (This remark is made at a suburban house party, where the general idea that honesty is just another angle hovers over the somewhat predictable proceeds: We learn, for the umpteenth time, that shiny suburban facades conceal assorted grubby secrets, etc. But as always, I’m less interested in the plot than in the passing mentions of advertising history. So back to that.)
Thomas Frank, in The Conquest of Cool, observes: “That by the end of the decade the [VW] was more hip than Nazi must be regarded as one of the great triumphs of American marketing.” Particularly so given that its “hipness was a product of advertising, the institution of mass sociaety against which hip declared itself most vehemently ad odds.” Frank argues that the agency that made the campaign, Doyle Dane Bernbach, “invented what we might call anti-advertising: a style which harnessed public mistrust of consumerism — perhaps the most powerful cultural tendency of the age — to consumerism itself.”

Sound familiar? Sure it does. It’s a point of view that’s now so thoroughly built into contemporary marketing, we pretty much expect it. The most scabrous critiques of the culture of marketing, are produced by marketing professionals, on behalf of whoever their paying client happens to be. Transparency, the consumer-in-control, co-creation, etc.: All today’s most progressive-sounding marketing tactics are all about honesty. It’s still a great angle.

“Mad Men” Musings

In one of the handful of scenes in the second episode of Mad Men that was explicitly about advertising, main character Don listens to the ideas his creative team has come up with to sell an exciting new product: Right Guard, in an aerosol can.

The ideas turn on the excitement of this new technology, which the creative gang says ought to be linked to, you know, rockets, and the exciting future. (The assignment is a clever choice by the show’s writers, given that aerosol cans, which no doubt really were seen as a breakthrough at the time, were eventually demonized as an environmental menace.) Don says this approach is all wrong, because plenty of people fear the future, and because while the product is for men, it will be bought by women, and the rocketships & progress approach won’t work for them.

Put aside whether these observations are original, or even true. Instead consider the way Don arrives at them: it’s an instinct, a hunch, a feeling in his presumably golden gut. Read more

Regarding “Mad Men”

The most enjoyable moment in the debut episode of Mad Men was — of course — the scene in which the advertising agency protagonists meet with their big tobacco-company client. It’s 1960, and becoming clear that tobacco companies aren’t going to be able use the rational-sounding sales pitches about how cigarettes are somehow good for you. Everyone’s has read in Reader’s Digest that the data just don’t back this up. What to do?

The meeting seems to be in a tailspin when Don, the slick-hair, gray-suit, main character of the show, asks the crusty old Southern tobacco magnate how his cigarettes are made. He latches onto a word in the man’s matter-of-fact description: Toasted. He writes it on a chalkboard: Lucky Strikes tobacco — It’s Toasted.

But, the magnate says, every brand is toasted. Then it sinks in. Here is what can replace the rational pitch — the meaningless pitch. Just put the phrase out there, and let the consumer fill in the blanks. Toasted? That sounds good. Must be good. Must be a point of differentiation — and a damn good one — if they mention it in their advertising.

None of this is spelled out, of course. But it’s a fair summation of a broad-brush shift that makes advertising today so different than it was in earlier eras. Read more