Mad Men and the Business of Selling Sentiment
A person could safely assume watching a television program about advertisements (and the men and women behind them) would mean seeing some familiar products, even if they are from 50 years ago. The smash AMC television drama, Mad Men, does feature product placement. It is a program that prides itself on historical accuracy. If the characters weren’t pitching actual brands and products from the 1960’s, they may as well be in the boardroom sporting polo shirts with popped collars, bumping-out to Lady Gaga on their radio, and slugging down cans of Red Bull. And they could, sure (provided the period-appropriate equivalents were in place). The opportunity for product placement in a show like this is enormous. However, there is no direct partnership or involvement with any of the featured products and the show itself.
So, if there isn’t money to be made from product placement, and if they – in fact – are not promoting products themselves, then what the heck is this show trying to promote?
Well, let’s look at this from the perspective of advertising and marketing:
Brand-spanking-new-and-improved product “B” is the perfect replacement for the status-quo, tired old, hum-drum product “A.” That is, until someone comes out the replacement for the replacement, the even-better-than-the-leading-brand-B, product “C!!!” In a cutthroat business like that, how could anyone hope to have staying power?
As I so often ask myself, “What would Don Draper do?”
In one episode of Mad Men, Draper is presented with the challenge of naming and promoting a new slide projector for Kodak. He realizes the technological advancements will grasp the consumer’s attention, but there a stronger ways to maintain it. Here is the pitch he delivers to Kodak:
“Technology is a glittering lure. But there is the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash, if they have a sentimental bond with the product.
My first job, I was in-house at a fur company, with this old-pro copywriter, a Greek named Teddy. Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising is new. Creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion.
But he also talked about a deeper bond with the product. Nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.”
– Don Draper, Mad Men
Any product can be matched in competition by a similar label with an equally-catchy tag line to champion its predecessor. Sometimes being new doesn’t mean being better. Take “Coke II,” for example, or the “New Coca-Cola.” Customers had no familiarity with it, no relationship to it, and – if only on the basis of that alone – didn’t much care for it. Half of the people opposed to it probably never had so much as a sip. But the original Coca-Cola? They not only know the taste. They remember it.
The Heinz packaging has changed, but its name has not.
There are anachronisms, sure. Coca-Cola now comes in cans. Kodak pictures are no longer shot on 35mm film. Heinz ketchup comes in plastic bottles. The packaging – and even the products – has changed, but the names have not. Every 4th of July barbeque today likely still has someone sipping his Coke, enjoying a burger with some Heinz ketchup, and taking family photographs with his Kodak camera (albeit a digital one). The bond people shared with those products in the 1960’s is no different than the one we have with them today.
It’s strange to say it, but I actually smile anytime I’m having dinner out and come across a glass ketchup bottle. It’s sad to think our next generation won’t ever get to experience the joy of shaking the hell out of that bottle until the ketchup either dribbles out, or floods your French Fries in a condiment tidal wave. Regardless, I’m more than sure tables will still have a bottle of Heinz atop them.
As Kate Gross of the brandingbrand.com blog notes, “The brand that can withstand is the one we always end up turning to. Classic is always in.”
If you promote a timeless product, something not subject to an expiration date, but something classic? There is no competition. There is only a constant: something familiar that customers find comfort in coming back to, again and again. Nostalgia makes optimism come easier to us, knowing that if something like Utz potato chips can make it through hard times, so can we. The comfort we find lies not only in our past, but in our future, too.
Mad Men succeeds because it transcends the notion of promoting a particular product.
It promotes a memory, a place those from the era can return to, and those new to it can explore.
It promotes nostalgia.
Image credit to Wikipedia for the publicity shot.