Why “Mad Men” Hits Close To Home

So much booze and cigarettes on this show, I feel dirty watching it.
I’ve been spending a fair bit of time recently watching past seasons of Mad Men” on Netflix. I never put much stock into it when it first came out, mostly because a show about the excesses of the 60’s wasn’t really what I was interested in indulging. It reminds me uncomfortably about the generation before mine, which viewed the world as filled with infinite resources, tobacco was healthy (or at least just beginning to be understood and regulated as unhealthy), cars were big and felt like you were floating on a cloud, litter was someone else’s problem, divorce was still scandalous even as it was growing more common, and people enjoyed what many consider to be the high-water mark of American society.

Most of the philandering in the program tends to lose me, but the interactions in the ad agency are what keeps me watching. The biggest reason this series never hooked me was that when it premiered, I wasn’t doing the film thing; at the time, I was doing the high tech thing, with Wine Biz Radio keeping me occupied on the side. Fast forward to now: I have a business doing commercial and corporate films (among other types), and many of those videos could easily be considered advertising.

Here’s the thing: when I see how the Madison Avenue ad men of the 60’s are portrayed, I have to admit breathing a sigh of relief at how the creative process that plays out on screen mirrors my own when I move clients through my sales pipeline beyond “customer profiling” and into the nebulous cloud of “idea generation.” I have a newfound respect for the desire of fictional characters such as Peggy Olson and Don Draper to create a narrative as part of developing an ad. Do I believe that they are noble people motivated by pure altruism and a desire to make society better? Of course not.

Ethics, shmethics

The ethics behind this category of video can be daunting: advertising is, at its core, the desire on the part of the client (usually a company of one form or another) to get the target audience to do something (buy a product or service, donate money, visit a website, and so on). Ethical advertising, which many would label an oxymoron, is an even more bizarre creature in that it seems to be in the same class as unicorns and mermaids. How does a creative professional determine how to highlight the benefits of one product or service over all of the others, while not mischaracterizing the product or service or its competitors? Worse still, how does that creative professional come up with something that at least feels original, while being ethical at the same time?

An interesting take on wine advertising. Ethical? Mostly.
An interesting take on wine advertising. Ethical? Mostly.

And when the product you’re attempting to sell is wine, the task becomes even more challenging, as there are specific federal rules to follow regarding what can and can’t be shown, talked about, or even implied. These rules are intended of course to make alcohol advertising more ethical (by not allowing health benefits to be implied, by restricting product shots to using the actual label that you would find on the bottle on store shelves, by disallowing the badmouthing of competitors) but have the effect of compressing the continuum of what’s possible creatively into a much narrower spectrum, leading most advertising to eschew product in favor of the creation of characters and narratives that have literally nothing to do with the product itself, but rather just entertaining people for 30 seconds to a minute, and flashing the product logo somewhere in the video for a few seconds. Seriously. The next time you see a wine, beer or spirit ad on television today, look at what it shows. I see narratives that have little or no relationship to the product, resorting to mere platitudes.

So, you have a solution, right?

How do I solve this problem? First, I spend what feels like way too much time idling my brain, meditating and dream journaling and all other manner of methods aimed at throwing the chains off my creativity. To watch me, it seems like I am always napping, much like you see Don Draper do on his office sofa.

Don Draper doing his creative process. No, really.
Don Draper doing his creative process. No, really.

During that process, I toss around in my head what the client is trying to accomplish, and how to portray that in a narrative that is still connected to the product or service, while still paying heed to any rules and restrictions that apply, such as those of the wine industry (since it is literally in my backyard and represents many of the clients I’m likely to serve). I strive to understand what action the client really wants from the audience, as well as what the client needs (but may not be able to articulate themselves), and use it mercilessly as the compass and chart to wrangle the random  thoughts that come and go.

I write down almost everything, and immediately throw out the first several ideas, because they are nearly always the things that are rooted in my ego and “easy” from the point of view that they have very likely been done before, been done recently, or are too straightforward. Once I’ve generated a few “better” ideas, I’m able to riff on them in paragraph form (what is commonly referred to as a treatment), trying to tease out a story that works for what the client is trying to accomplish, while avoiding ethical minefields, like mischaracterizing benefits or even being just plain wrong about the product or service itself.

Wait, is this post about Mad Men or not?

Well, the point of this is that many of the conversations between Peggy and Don on the show (especially the fourth season) have definitely resonated with my philosophy. I don’t have a creative director to tell me that an idea sucks, so I end up having to spend more time playing the concept from multiple angles to fully vet and test its appropriateness. On the show, Don suggests at one point that you go through the bad ideas looking for the good one, and you’ll know it’s good when you see it. So, as in many creative pursuits, it’s a process.

So, this is partly about Mad Men, and it’s partly about me. Go figure.

When I create a short promo or ad spot, this is what I’m primarily concerned with: finding great ideas and concepts that tell a real story to the audience, in order to bring a real and measurable result for my clients. Just don’t ask me to do anything unethical.