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Examining the Ad Men Behind Mad Men

August 2nd, 2009 | Jonathan Gray

Betty Draper

While unpacking and getting the new life sorted out, one of the things I’ve found some spare time for this summer has been catching up on (ie: watching from the beginning) Mad Men. I’m now intrigued by their advertising for the new season.

Before getting to the ads for the show, though, let me say how wonderful I think Mad Men is. I’m so impressed by the storytelling, and by how the show can shift focus to various supporting characters with skill, fleshing them out wonderfully over time. It’s also a treat to see a show that can critically examine a whole bunch of “issues” without feeling didactic, obvious, or hackneyed.

I’m also somewhat surprised by its relatively low ratings to date, which places its ad campaigns under the microscope for me. Yeah, it’s slow, it’s hard to crack if you missed earlier episodes, and it’s on a cable channel. But Lost is hard to crack, and has managed much higher ratings. And, like Lost, I would have imagined that its eye candy factor, both in terms of beautiful people, but also in terms of high quality filming, would have helped smooth over other perceived problems. Even more than Lost, too, it’s been a critical darling. Like 30 Rock, it’s managed the amazing trick of being full of product placement yet still loved and revered by TV critics and academics alike. It’s gotten a bunch of Emmy nominations.

So, if it’s so good, and if it has such good buzz, why aren’t more people watching it?

AMC is clearly asking the same thing, since they’ve put a major push into marketing it this last month. Two strategies in particular are interesting.

First, as many of you will have seen on Facebook, they came up with a Mad Men Yourself avatar creator. The Simpsons made such a splash with its avatar creator for The Simpsons Movie, as Facebook went all Springfieldian for a month or more. It’s a smart tool for getting your show out there, and I’d imagine that if the Yearbook Yourself site wasn’t competing with it right now, I’d be seeing even more Duck Phillips, Pete Campbell, or Rachel Mencken clones on Facebook every time I log in. Below is my own arrival at Sterling Cooper.


What I find somewhat amusing with these is that neither Springfield nor Sterling Cooper seem like particularly wonderful worlds to step into. I think of a friend who recently expressed concern that a Facebook quiz said that she was Betty Draper in Mad Men, and a friend of hers noted that there’s no particularly wonderful woman to be in the show. I’d echo that with men – sure, everyone wanted to be Lester or Omar for the Facebook Wire quizzes, but do you really want to be Don, Sterling, or Pete? If so, you kind of missed the criticism. I think the way to read these avatar creators, though, is not that they’re saying that you might want to step into these worlds, as much as they’re sending a message that one could, since they are immersive, expansive, tangible environments.

The other part of the Mad Men campaign that somewhat perplexes me is its joining forces with Banana Republic (hereafter BR). BR has designed a bunch of its summer items around the show, and its windows are full of ads (including a competition that would allow one a walk-on role in the show). Mad Men is full of product placement, but since it’s set in the early sixties, they’re all for brands that were around then. BR wasn’t, so already there’s a somewhat odd temporal disjuncture. It’s a smart relationship for BR, since Mad Men is heavily stylized, full of well-dressed and crisp looking people, and it’s a critical darling, so they can brand themselves as classy, chic, and sophisticated. But Mad Men seems to get very little textually out of the deal – how does that communicate to anyone a sense of what Mad Men is, other than saying it’s the classy sibling of the Gap and Old Navy (but which shows are the Gap and Old Navy in this metaphor?). Admittedly, what it does get is visibility – it gets into malls around the continent.

So what I’m left wondering is whether that’s ultimately all Mad Men really needs to get more viewers – visibility. Is a BR shopper a would-be Mad Men viewer? I’d love to see the demographics and research behind this campaign. Indeed, I’m left, ironically, wanting to know how this show about advertising handles its advertising.

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  1. August 2nd, 2009 at 20:49 | #1

    Being a harcore fan of the show, I have to agree. The marketing of the program seems a bit off the mark. Seems like sacrificing fit for ‘mass’ in very blunt ways. Too bad.

  2. August 3rd, 2009 at 18:25 | #2

    While not all those who shop at Banana Republic watch Mad Men, most of my acquaintances who watch the show either do indeed shop there or have girlfriends/partners/mothers who shop there for them.

    A lot of fashion is going through/has been going through a ’60s retro phase of late: high waisted pencil skirts, tucked in blouses, shirtwaists, shirtdresses, headbands, full-skirted (and belted) dresses. Look at the current Banana Republic collection and you will see the Mad Men fashion aesthetic in action. There may not be an explicit cross-plug, but BR is the best choice, especially since it’s a nationwide chain and much ‘hipper’ than, say, Ann Taylor. (The only better choice would’ve been Anthropologie, but they just don’t have the same national reach, including mid-sized markets).

    And while I don’t know how well the window displays will encourage non-viewers to give it a chance, I do know that it’s been effective — along with the Mad Men-yourself program — in generating enormous anticipation for the third season. A year ago, the buzz was not nearly as big, in part due to the number of new fans (and friends of fans who’ve caught up through DVD, such as yourself). The show may still be niche, but it’s expanding — much the way that Sex and the City did.

  3. Jonathan Gray
    August 4th, 2009 at 09:56 | #3

    I should add that I saw an ad on AMC the other day that marketed it wholly as sexy television, with a whole long sequence of pics of secretaries in bed with Sterling, Betty in lingerie, Don being Don, Joan getting zipped up, etc. While on one hand it seemed to miss the point of the show, it’s also an ad that I’m surprised took so long to appear.

  4. Courtney Brannon Donoghue
    August 4th, 2009 at 19:54 | #4

    It appears AMC and Mad Men are utilizing marketing for Season 3 as a way to offer avid viewers a type of interactivity or participation that is becoming a strategy of the networks. (Although I agree it is surprisingly uncharacteristic of the network). In addition to the partnership with Banana Republic that helps audiences dress the part, the AMC website now features a cocktail guide to making Don or Betty’s “vintage” Manhattan or Gimlet. http://www.amctv.com/originals/madmen/cocktail-guide/

    I would not be surprised if the next guide had to do with how throw a “Mad Men”-inspired dinner party that could conveniently coincide with Sunday night episodes. This interactive strategy popular with serial drama websites from Lost to Gossip Girl encourages participation and identification with elements of the show that are blurring the lines between fandom and branding . Audiences can now be walking advertisements for the new season in person or virtually, as with the Mad Men avatars on facebook. As seen on TV is taking on a whole other level within the network.

  5. September 3rd, 2009 at 06:42 | #5

    I love the show as well but I don’t shop at Banana Republic! And what about Mad Men avatars on facebook? I have never seen them!

  6. Benjifrank
    September 22nd, 2009 at 13:35 | #6

    Well written. Here’s an article that delves deeper into the brand of Mad Men …


  7. Jonathan Gray
    September 23rd, 2009 at 09:18 | #7

    I’d just logged in to post a link to that, actually :-)

  1. October 3rd, 2009 at 16:37 | #1