After having abandoned Mad Men about halfway through its 6th season a few years ago, I reasoned last week that a freezing January weekend was as good a time as any to give it another shot, especially since the show will end this spring and we’ll all soon find out what is to become of poor old Don Draper. I originally gave up the show because it had lost the atmosphere of the first few seasons, and by the middle of Season 5 had become a parody of itself. It turned out, putting a pin in Season 6 and returning to it later over this past week was beneficial, so much so that I am actually looking forward to new episodes this April. It’s decent TV after all, it’s very well made, and its meticulous attention to detail is admirable. One of these details stuck with me more than others however. In the last episode of Season 6, Don Draper at the zenith of his alcoholism hides his drinking by pouring his Canadian Club into a mug at his office. It’s a colourful, psychedelically designed mug and is therefore one that the dour old fashioned 1950s man Don Draper has no business possessing. He knew it too, as he grimaces at this mug as the camera lingers upon it, before he takes one more gulp. The noticeable mug of course bears the logo of the newly rebranded company (Sterling Cooper and Partners) he now works for, and this grimace of course is meant to symbolise both his distaste for his current lifestyle and also his queasiness at his position in the restructured advertising agency. It serves a point therefore, both physically and thematically, but the camera lingers a bit too long on this mug for me to think anything else than they want me to go online and buy it.
And of course, you can. SC&P is a registered trademark of Lionsgate Studios, the studio that makes Mad Men. They also licensed mugs and other merchandise for each of the myriad other iterations of the Sterling Cooper advertising agency that have existed throughout the 8 years of Mad Men’s existence (who would have thought advertising would be contained within a show about advertising? Mindblowing, I know). At this point I want to differentiate what’s happening here from mere product placement. In the main image at the top of this blogpost, there is a screenshot showing both the offending mug in question, and also a bottle that is clearly Smirnoff Vodka. Both are advertising products within the same frame of the same scene, yet the two are very different things. Don’s use of the mug is different from Captain America needing to go to an Apple Store to get online in The Winter Soldier, or Brad Pitt saving the world by distracting zombies with the cool refreshing taste of Pepsi in the closing scene in World War Z. No matter how subtle or offensive these product placements are, their sole purpose is for the viewer to associate the brand with the movie/tv show in question. If you buy Smirnoff or Canadian Club whiskey, or even Lucky Strike cigarettes, you are buying something that wants to be associated with Don Draper. The mug though, wasn’t a product outside the show. In truth, it’s a Mad Men product, advertising itself within its own brand. When you buy the SC&P mug, you are buying a Don Draper accessory.
This shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone who watches Mad Men, in truth. Most viewers of the show are aged 18-45 and therefore have been primed since youth for this type of advertising. I grew up watching He-Man cartoons. A little-known fact about He-Man was that it was devised simply to sell action figures, and I mean this quite literally. The success of Star Wars action figures led the marketers of 1982’s Conan The Barbarian to schedule a massive release of tie-in toys. Only after the film was made did these marketers realise that the film was too violent to sell to kids, and they needed a way to get rid of their plastic creations. Someone on the team came up with He-Man, and a cartoon was created to promote the remoulded action figures. Kids like me who loved the show only needed to see a new character on-screen to immediately want to own its real world likeness in action figure form. For creating new product demand, for these animators it was simply the case of drawing a character and moulding some plastic. The same is true obviously of things like Barbie. The Simpsons parodied the doll industry better than anyone by having kids go crazy for a new Malibu Stacy doll that was released with a new hat. This model of within-brand demand creation is now being applied to what we consider as grown up television, yet still it remains as simple as: Don Draper has a new mug, I have to have it (at a subconscious level, naturally).
This kind of demand creation, as well as product placement, will no doubt be countered by TV/movie producers as a result of diminishing revenues due to illegal downloading. He-Man lasted 20 minutes, with another 10 minutes of ads. In the mid-1980s McDonalds made an E.T. ripoff called Mac and Me. For a year or two in the early 90s I watched an animated TV series every Saturday morning that had the Nintendo logo in most scenes, and this show also contained 10 minutes of commercials. Product placement, and the kind of brand reinforcing that Mad Men is guilty of, would exist anyway, even if illegal downloading was perfectly traceable and carried a zero tolerance sentence of the death penalty. Perhaps it is no wonder however that Mad Men engages in this type of self promotion. Everyone talks about Mad Men, but apparently not many actually watch it. The potential viewership of US TV shows are judged by the forecasted amount of people who will watch the episode when it is first broadcast on television. For Mad Men, this is a very low number and as a result they can only demand about one third of what a show like CSI could ask for an advertising placement during a commercial break of this episode premiere. This is an antiquated metric of viewership of course, as many people watch it on reruns or else stream it online.
Mad Men, even though it doesn’t make money in the traditional US TV show model, has had a massive cultural impact and the onus is on its producers to find revenue streams elsewhere. Mad Men parties exist globally where attendees dress up in 60s clothes and dance to 60s music, attempting to connect with an idealised, classier era. Mad Men need to make money from this, and therefore they launched a line of clothing with Banana Republic. They even launched a song and dance revue show tour in the US. Further, every 1960s client of Don Draper is a real modern brand, and therefore the drawn-out process (with included character arcs of our favourite characters) of finding an ad campaign for each product is in itself an ad for that real life product, within our idealised (well, quasi-realistic) version of the 1960s that is the Mad Men universe. It’s a decent show about advertising, that advertises itself and others. What its product promotion would like to get from Mad Men is association, but what Mad Men really does is promote itself, and its universe. Like He-Man or Barbie, or any other universe you wanted to live in as a child, this universe is not perfect and probably wouldn’t be a great place to live in, but pretending to be the protagonist in it sure did feel good. It’s why Malibu Stacy can be resold with just a new hat, it’s one of the reasons why lightsabers have different colours, and its why Don Draper can sell a surprising amount of mugs. TV marketers have just discovered that we’re all still kids after all.