Mad Men is a period piece television series set in the 1960s in an advertising firm in New York City. The beauty of this series, other than its accurate exploration of feminism, sexisim, homophobia and the expectations placed on men to succeed, is the way its characters are challenged to come up with inventive ways of selling their clients’ products. The first episode deals primarily with a cigarette company, Lucky Strike, and the controversial hurdle of the risk of cancer. One psychologist believes that they should advertise Lucky Strike as a dangerous product; something which makes you feel like you’re living on the James Dean edge. She is dismissed (possibly because she is a woman) and leading heart-throb man, Don Draper, sells it on its delicious qualities: “It’s toasted.” I don’t smoke but if a cigarette was lying next to me I may well have lit up then and there! It’s toasted: yum! Good thing I didn’t know about Lucky Strike when I was an impressionable youth!
As the series continues in its fourth season the characters struggle to maintain even a semblance of the control they had earlier. No longer are the clients concerned about how to creatively sell their product, they have money and they know it talks. In season one the advertising firm could pick and choose its clients. If the client sucks, fire them. Three seasons later, however, we see a shift in dynamic. Now the advertising firms must work for the client, regardless of their lack of expertise on the subject. No longer are Draper and his team able to creatively guide each project, they can only make suggestions. And no matter how artistic the idea might be they can no longer afford to tell the client to stick it. This is demonstrated well when the Lucky Strike head honcho coerces Sterling into dressing up as Santa and handing out presents, in an attempt to humiliate the fiery senior partner.
We now live in a world saturated with advertising. This is no longer “news” though; Westernised countries expect to be visually and auditorally assaulted with images, brands, logos, jingos etcetera, etcetera. Which may be why advertising isn’t succeeding in what it previously achieved. The focus has shifted from creative, insightful and entertaining, to overexposure. People eat McDonald’s because they know it’s there, not necessarily because they actually like McDonald’s.
Mad Men highlights the fact that advertising is designed to manipulate us into buying their product. Because people have become a bit more savvy it seems consumers are now more likely to be convinced to buy a product by word-of-mouth, rather than television commercials. There are the rare exceptions though, where McDonald’s released a French ad about a closeted gay boy enjoying a family meal with his Father. And although this is a little exploitative, perhaps we are seeing a return to more creative advertising? But is it effective?
Advertisers have cottoned onto social networking which means the future of advertising is by no means on its way out, but it is evolving. People are more likely to “trust” their friends when they say things like “ZOMG THIS MEATBALL SUB IS DELICIOUS AND YOU SHOULD BUY YOURSELF A FAT FOOT LONG” (via say, Foursquare) over a television ad which tells them the meatball sub has only x amount of calories. I won’t open the Pandora box issue of privacy concerns but certainly Facebook are now allowing advertisers to harness people’s profiles to discover what people like and then selling them similar products. That’s why on my Facebook profile I am told that Battlestar Galactica is on sale on Amazon, even though I already own the complete series because it is awesome.
I would love to see advertisers take a note from Man Men’s book more often. Setting aside the nasty aspect of advertising that Mad Men explores, which is that advertising worms its way into your personal life and may be influencing it just as much as it is being influenced by you, I want to see creativity and art in current ads. When that happens I am willingly engaged. I am happy I saw the Sony Bravia ad because I discovered musician Jose Gonzalez. In fashion magazines you often find meticulous and sometimes beautiful concepts which attempt to raise the profile of a company, rather than profiteer off the product it is advertising. I mean look at the recent Bulgari ad featuring Julianne Moore! It was banned in Venice! You really can’t pay for that kind of attention. You earn it.