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 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.

Eric Labanauskas

Eric is a data entry specialist and contributing writer for the QLP Blog Squad. He is a city boy with a country heart, with an appetite for anything chicken-fried. He has studied as an apprentice at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, performed across the country as Buddy Holly in "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," and can tie a bow tie by himself without the aid of a mirror. 1950's rock 'n roll is his soundtrack, especially while on road-trips with his lovely girlfriend. Suffice it to say, he is also the owner of some good cocktail party stories from his many experiences. You can also connect with Eric on Google+.


  1. Jill Tooley

    Mad Men is one of my favorite shows EVER. It’s funny; when my friend first told me how good it was, I was skeptical because she didn’t tell me much about it. I believe her exact words were: “It’s a drama about the advertising business in the 1960s.” At the time, I wanted to know specifics, but now I’m glad she didn’t give them to me (she told me to just stop asking questions and watch it). I was hooked approximately 2 episodes in! It’s been a pleasure watching the plot unfold and the characters develop since the first season.

    I love your Heinz ketchup example (I get excited when there are glass bottles on the tables, too!) and you’re dead right about timeless products. No matter how many new products or gimmicks hit the market, classic names will always speak to people in a way that other brands can’t touch. I often reflect on how much packaging has changed since my childhood years (on brands that are still around today, that is) and there’s something so cool about brands that revamp their packages to mimic a classic style of eras past. Nostalgia gets me every time. I wasn’t alive in the 60s to experience some of the stuff that goes on in Mad Men, but my parents were, and that makes me feel sentimental as well. It’s hard to explain…hopefully I’m making sense.

    Anyway, excellent blog. We should geek out about Mad Men again sometime! 🙂

  2. Bret Bonnet

    I like the way they dress!

    • Eric

      “Mad Men” theme party and/or day at the office? I think so.

      • Tony Promo

        Just as long as I get a Christina Hendricks look-alike.

        • Eric

          You and the rest of the GQ Magazine staff writers, sir.

  3. JPorretto

    As great as this post is, and as much as I like Mad Men, I can’t stop thinking about how great the ketchup bottle with the squeeze top is. I do not miss the glass bottles…

    • Eric

      The small ones they still manufacture for the restaurant industry actually solved the pain-in-the-butt task of pouring ketchup by making the mouth of the bottle substantially wider. Those are my favorite. I guess I liked the glass ones because you were practically obligated to pre-shake it. The plastic ones sometimes have a tendency to make a watery mess. Dear God. Am I actually talking about ketchup bottle preference and technique? I guess so. And hey…better than those darn packets.

  4. Lauren G.

    A-MAZING blog! I just saw the words Mad Men and clicked as fast as I could. Jill, was I right? 😉 I <3 that time period so much that when the show came out, I had to watch it. I was hooked instantly! I've watched all the seasons, twice. I'll do it again before season 5 comes out, if it ever does. :p Donald Draper is an inspiration to me. I can't forget about Peggy either. He's so articulate and lives by the seat of his pants during most "pitches," but I think that's what I like about him.

    I always love glass Heinz bottles as well! I agree, "Classic is always in." No matter what generation you belong to, there's certain things that we know of or heard of at least. Like JIF peanut butter, I'm a loyal consumer, always. That's been around forever, but this new crap they have nowadays, like Nutella or whatever….come'on! People stay loyal to brands and therefore pass that down to their family. Certain things that I "grew up" with I still use and try to promote today. Like Jill said, there "timeless products." Great post!! And if you two geek out about Mad Men, include me! lol! 🙂

    • Jill Tooley

      Oh, you were SO right, girl. Thanks for getting me hooked! 😉

      P.S. Peggy is where it’s at!

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      Don’t you say anything bad about Nutella. 🙁 It’s “newer” in the US, but it’s been in Europe just about as long as Jif has been in the US. Don’t get me wrong, I love Jif peanut butter and will eat it for the rest of my life, but Nutella is delicious, too.

      Also, a Nutella and peanut butter sandwich is one of the most tasty things in the entire world.

      • Eric

        Nutella? Classic example of something established over in Europe that came to Americans by way of some chef-lebrity on the Food Network, I’m sure. It was delicious long before that happened, at least for me (one of my Christmas cookies uses Nutella with candied ginger sandwiched between two Nilla wafer cookies) but comparing peanut butter to Nutella is like comparing Coke to Sprite.

        And Mandy, thanks to your comment, looks like I know what kind of sandwich I’m making myself tonight. Awesome.

    • Eric

      Thanks, Lauren. Draper’s a heck of a guy, at least in the boardroom. The passage I quoted is probably my favorite five minutes of him in any episode, period. Given, he’s his misses (“Eat LIFE by the bowful?!?!”), but most the time, the man knows what he’s doing, and looks good doing it. Peggy’s a great character. Joan, too. I like that the women have their strength, too, and the show didn’t overhaul-it with chauvinism and realized that boardrooms aren’t the only places to find people of power.

      I’m totally loyal to my brands. I have my favorite peanut butter. My favorite cola. You name it. Sometimes, even if it’s not on sale (and the competitor’s product is), I’ll still go on ahead and grab “my” brand.

      Alright. Looks like we totally need to have a geek-out party between us and the rest the fans over here at QLP. Let’s make it happen!

  5. amy

    I can’t believe Mad Men isn’t coming back until March 2012. Noooooo 🙁

    With that aside, I really enjoyed your post Eric! Even though I wasn’t alive in the 60’s I get what Jill is saying about feeling sentimental about this era. I like to think it’s because of the connection that I feel with my parents and grandparents, almost like I can better understand them. My mom was around the same age of Don and Betty’s daughter, Sally, so I enjoy watching it with her and asking her about things from that time.

    If we had an Emmy for amazing blog posts, you would be nominated in my book 🙂 Great post!

    • Jill Tooley

      I feel exactly the same way, Amy! Remember the episode when Don gets Beatles tickets for Sally? That reminded me SO much of my mom! She was (and still is) a huge Beatles fan and she would have been about that age at the time. It’s amazing how much the show hooks you in these profound ways…

    • Eric

      Thanks, Amy!

      Another “Mad Men” fan? Awesome. I’m glad I’m in good company when it comes to that. Glad I’m also not the only feeling the “It’s-Sunday-night-and-what-the-heck-do-I-watch?” pain until 2012 rolls around.

      Much like the power in advertisement, here, comes from selling an image, or an emotion (rather than a product), I think nostalgia works much the same way for those who weren’t living in a particular time period. We find things we like, things we respect, things we identify with, that carry-over regardless of the era.

      They start handing-out Emmys for blog posts, well, we’re all due!

  6. Eric

    I can probably count on one hand (if that) the number of times I’ve had a meal with an actual ketchup bottle. Last time? A lunch stop at a place in Door County back in 2008. That’s just a smart product because of – if nothing else – association. Every last 4th of July barbeque and late-night diner meal likely has a bottle of Heinz to go along with it. Talk about nostalgia, there.

    I’m definitely a sucker for “Throwback” style packaging, advertising, the whole lot of it. I think it says something when folks go out of their way to find those tin signs. Back then, they were just a simple way of promoting a product, and now, they’re practically living-room-wall, conversation pieces. I just appreciate how stylized everything was. It had a deliberate aesthetic to it. Back then, cars were practically fine art. Now, they’re plastic boxes used to hold engines.

    And yep, that show’s television crack. I had the advantage (or disadvantage, depending on how you see it) to have the first season on Blu-Ray. This means the amount of episodes you’d have on several discs were on one. End of Episode #1? Let’s move onto #2! #3! Honestly think I wound up watching four in-a-row.

    Now only if I could find someplace other than the 50’s drive-in over in Braidwood, IL to get my Green River fix (without waiting the whole year for it to roll around for St. Patrick’s Day). Hmm.

  7. Lauren G.

    I’m so old school….but if you say Nutella is good then I might just have to try it! I guess you can’t knock it til you try it. 😉

    Eric, I agree with your Don Draper quote, that was an awesome bit!

    • Eric

      Well, if you do wind up knocking it, I’m more than sure either Mandy or myself will be more than happy to relieve you of the leftovers.

      And you’ve got it…Draper knows how to sell some slide projectors.

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      As long as you like chocolate and hazelnut, you should be a fan. But, if you’re not, I think a jar would be an excellent addition to the QLP kitchen.

  8. Joseph Giorgi

    It’s hard to watch Mad Men and not be overwhelmed by feelings of nostalgia, which is precisely why I watch it, and love it. The period authenticity, the vintage brands, the pitch-perfect performances — it all rings so true. The show just exudes a certain kind of appeal that I can’t resist, and you’ve definitely spelled out a big part of the reason why. Fantastic post, Eric!

    Also, I’ll second the idea for a Mad Men-themed office party. 🙂

    • Eric

      Thanks, Joe! It’s just cool to look at it. Even if the speakers on the TV died-out on you, there’s so much work and attention to detail that you’ve really got to appreciate. Whoever works in their scenic and props departments sure earns their paychecks. And agreed. It’d be one classy party.

  9. Cybernetic SAM

    Well said!!!!! I love Mad Men (as should anyone if they had any sense). I mean, who could resist good ol’ Don Draper!?!? I agree that they have overwhelmingly defined nostalgia. I did not even exist then but I feel like I can totally understand my grandparents and the social norms of that time.

    I also love all the philosophical witticisms like; “I hate to break it to you but there is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent.” or “Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.” and used as such to brand and some how motivate success, amazing!

    I think this show should be a requirement for all business majors! Heck, it even teaches you a lot about just existing! Again, another win for a fantastic post!

    • Eric

      Thanks! Oh, man…the quotes. So, so many good lines from this show. So many from Don Draper, alone.

      It’s a good show for the time we’re in with the economy the way it is. I think it was best expressed by someone writing about the show, hoping it could “Help sell America back to Americans.” I think it’s doing a pretty good job.

      I was at the local Borders during their closeout sale and, amidst all the bargain-bin business, I found the soundtrack from the show, sitting by itself, alone on a shelf. Picked it up and it’s a good couple discs to play in the background on a lazy evening.

  10. Kyle

    Great post, Eric.

    I’ve been meaning to watch this show sometime because I’ve heard great things and this post made it sound even better. I’m pretty sure it’s available for streaming on Netflix now so I might as well. Thanks for the reminder!

    I love when media uses nostalgia to its advantage. It’s like it isn’t even fair sometimes. Some stuff just never loses its cool factor.

    I just saw the movie “Drive” the other day and it was STUFFED with 80’s nostalgia. I wasn’t even alive during the 80’s, but I still found the synth-heavy soundtrack mesmerizing. FANTASTIC movie by the way. I never imagined Ryan Gosling could play such a badass. But, I can also say this movie wouldn’t be nearly as cool if it weren’t for the nostalgia factor. Let’s just say it would go from Steve McQueen cool to Jason Statham cool. Both very cool guys, but you get my drift.

    What was I talking about again? Sorry I got lost in the moment… Oh yeah, nostalgia. That’s some powerful stuff right there. 😛

    • Eric

      Not like we’re teetering-on being in 2012, but before the next season comes on, I’d say, yeah, absolutely, get a jump on those past seasons. The show is good enough to enjoy sans context, but knowing the background behind all the characters and their relationships with another is what makes an already good show great.

      I was chatting with a guy Monday night about “Drive” and he had the same to say about the film. Gosling’s the man. Never thought I’d say that about an actor who made his name on a Nick Sparks film, but hey, I’ve got to give it to him.

      “Steve McQueen-cool?”

      Now that’s something for all us dudes to aspire to.

      • Kyle

        I know, I can’t believe I used “Ryan Gosling” and “badass” in the same sentence, but he definitely pulled it off. I’m pretty this was his way of apologizing to every single guy who was ever forced to watch the notebook.

        And to that I say: Apology accepted, Mr. Gosling.

        • Amanda

          Let me just say—from a female’s perspective, Ryan Gosling is awesome, “the man”, badass, etc. 😉 Especially in the Notebook, lol. I can’t wait to check out the movie “Drive”, even if it is just because he’s in it.

          • Eric

            Well, it does take some marbles to impulsively climb up the side of a moving Ferris Wheel with the intention of asking a girl-who-already-has-a-boyfriend out. Guess Gosling’s always had it in him, but he’s just making it a little more obvious, now.

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      “I wasn’t even alive during the 80?s…”

      Thanks for making us all feel old, Kyle.

      • Kyle

        Oops! Sorry, Mandy!

        I was just trying to make a point regarding how nostalgia can play a role even with generations that may not have grown up with whatever is being portrayed. Much like Mad Men’s appeal, I’m assuming. I doubt many of us can connect to Mad Men’s time period on a personal level, but the era lends a certain coolness and classiness that “today” just doesn’t have.

        Sorry! =)

        • Mandy Kilinskis

          Haha, it’s okay, Kyle.

          I totally get what you mean, though. Captain America had me nostalgic for the 40s, and well, I have absolutely no concept of what it was like to live in the 40s. My grandma was only 10 then.

    • Jill Tooley

      All 4 seasons are on Netflix streaming, Kyle! Let us know what you think if you start watching! 🙂

      • Kyle

        Thanks, Jill! I’ve actually had it on my instant queue for about a month or so, but haven’t gotten around to it. But I’ll definitely dive into it one of these days!

  11. Jen

    I hate Pete Campbell. That is all.

    Nice post Eric, I can’t wait for more Mad Men blogs! Keep ’em coming!

    • Eric

      Oh, Pete Campbell. Tries way, way too hard.

      Love that line someone serves him up with at Sterling’s wedding reception, telling him to try and not hand out his business card.

      Hmm…more “Mad Men” blogs? There could be a possibility…

  12. Amanda

    This sounds like an awesome show Eric! I hope I can get some time to check it out. Sounds like something we would really enjoy at our house. =)

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