Examining the Ad Men Behind Mad Men
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.Tags: Mad Men, promotion