Why I’m Mad About ‘Mad Men’

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As published in the Providence Journal, April 20, 2014.

Mad Men is back for its seventh season, and I’m thrilled. I love the show’s braided story lines and stylized sets and just about everything Roger Sterling says.

Confession: I also love Mad Men because the show’s protagonist, Don Draper, shares my profession: he is a copywriter.

Like many English majors in college, I had dreams of becoming a writer of fiction or poetry. When I took a copywriting position at an ad agency after graduation, a fellow would-be poet accused me of selling out. But the job was a godsend. It made me write every day. And I loved the challenge of channeling creativity to connect with people through a form they were predisposed to ignore, if not hate.

I tell clients that people say they hate advertising until they see an ad they love – one that makes them laugh or solves a problem they have or connects them to a cause. Really, it’s the idea of advertising that irks people. They hate being targeted for a sell job, especially when it’s intrusive – the pop-up ad that obscures the article they want to read; the inane radio spot jingle that they can’t get out of their head; the e-mail solicitations that cram their inbox.

And yet, when someone loves an ad and it appears on TV, they will stop a conversation to ask a friend, “Have you seen this?”

Advertise derives from the Latin ad- “toward,” + vertere “to turn.” Ads turn our attention to products and services that someone wants us to buy. We love ads that do their work with wit, style, and simplicity. But when ads barge in on our lives with carnival-barker shouts and pedestrian design, we reach for the remote, or swipe the page.

For, as everyone quickly learns in the business, advertising can turn an individual toward, or away, from a product.

In his great book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser points out that “writing is a craft, not an art. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.” He could have been talking about advertising, where hundreds of refinements stand between the flash of an idea and an ad that connects with people. Pencils have erasers; keyboards have delete keys; and good copywriters make heavy use of both – just like their colleagues in the “pure” creative arts.

In a Consumer Resistance Study conducted by Yankelovich years ago, nearly 70% of consumers said they were “interested in products and services that would help them skip or block marketing.” Yet 55% also offered that they enjoy advertising.

Most people’s relationship with advertising is paradoxical. We resist with our heads but succumb with our hearts.

In an early episode of Mad Men, novice copywriter Peggy Olson tells Don Draper that “sex sells.” He corrects her. “You feeling something – that’s what sells.” It’s true of communications at every level. Whether it’s a film or a poem or a song or, yes, an ad, people buy into an emotion honestly felt and artfully conveyed.

If you were an aspiring copywriter or art director during the Mad Men era, you pored over Doyle Dane Bernbach’s work for Volkswagen and Avis and Alka-Seltzer, which broke new ground for creativity and intelligence. The agency’s visionary was Bill Bernbach, who said, “let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling.”

When someone says they hate advertising, I’ll suggest that they hate bad advertising – just as they hate bad movies, bad music, and bad advice.

And, hey, who doesn’t?

But among the reasons for Mad Men’spopularity is its keen portrayal of the alchemy that good advertising achieves. At the close of the first season, we see Don Draper transform left-brain strategy into right-brain creative gold. As a Kodak slide projector clicks through old photos of his family, in happier days, he tells us it’s a “time machine.” He names the projector the Carousel because “it lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around and back home again.” Now, that’s good selling.

To paraphrase Edison, advertising is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I spend 99% of my time writing and re-writing declarative sentences; learning about energy management and hip replacement surgery and commercial lending and other things that my clients do; checking facts and verb agreements; preparing strategy briefs and presentations. It’s good work and I am grateful to make my living this way.

Especially when a 1% moment shines through.

 

2 Comments

“…novice copywriter Peggy Olson tells Don Draper that ‘sex sells.’ He corrects her. ‘You feeling something – that’s what sells.’ “…Yes, Mad Men decidedly a period TV show that depicts men pointing out pithy truths to women…correcting them. That interchange signifies the inequity at heart in this series, tho’ it delights in many other ways. I enjoy good advertising but there’s so little of it. I frequently ask husband “What was the product in that ad (afterwards)?” Neither of us knows…

    Hi Colleen: Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that SCDP has all the workplace inequities that marked its era. In highlighting that exchange between Don and Peggy, my aim was to get at the heart of what makes an ad (or any piece of art or communication) great, i.e., “you feeling something” and translating that into the work. With all his faults, Don, I believe, knows and recognizes that Peggy is one of the few people in the agency that gets how advertising works — and one of the best at the craft. Their relationship has always been at the core of the series, and I can’t wait to see where it ends up in the finale (well, I guess I will have to wait…)

    Agree, too, that so much of the advertising that we see is a missed opportunity for smart work and/or simply high-end production, with no compelling idea behind it.

    Thanks again for your comment — really appreciate your taking the time to read and share your thoughts.

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