Are the ad man's campaigns really all that impressive?
Don Draper is a creative genius. It's a premise Mad Men viewers have been reminded of constantly during the show's four seasons. Colleagues and competitors repeatedly use that word to describe his work, and the show rests on the idea that Don's ability to wow clients with brilliant advertisements gives his firm a competitive advantage. An episode structure often employed by the show's writers begins with a client demanding a new ad campaign and ends with Don impressing said client during a presentation in which he unveils a new idea that goes above and beyond their expectations.
But the idea that Don is the most brilliant man on Madison Avenue seems ludicrous. The fictional advertising campaigns he and his team of copywriters develop are, like much of the real advertising produced in the 1950s and 1960s, incredibly dull. They lack the over-the-top irony and absurdist humor that is prevalent in advertising today. At the time Mad Men is set, real ad firms were developing innovative campaigns that would end up changing people's perception of what constitutes great advertising. In one episode, Don and his colleagues sit in his office looking at Volkswagen's famous "Lemon" ad that used irony to sell a small car whose strange aesthetic was different from the cars American companies were producing. The tagline was a clever play on the meaning of "lemon" as a car that's a dud and the idea that "plum" is something to be desired: "We pluck the lemons; you get the plums." The ad is regarded as a landmark piece of work, but Don is unambiguous about his distaste for Volkswagen's approach. He looks at the print ad and says, "I don't know what I hate about it the most: the ad or the car," essentially drawing a line of demarcation between the type of work he does and the type of work that at that time was forward-thinking.
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Don's approach to advertising, by contrast, is straightforward and devoid of humor. Take his proposed campaign for a Kodak slide projector, which he pitches during what is arguably the show's most famous scene. While giving a presentation to executives from Eastman Kodak, Don waxes poetic about the alluring power of nostalgia. He fills up the slide projector with old family photos and says that the device, which he christens "The Carousel," has the power to transport the owner back in time and connect him or her with old memories that still carry emotional weight. During the scene somber music plays in the background; a colleague tears up and leaves the room. The executives are amazed, and Sterling Cooper's ends up winning the account.
When viewed through the lens of the current advertising landscape and its silly spokesmen, from the Geico Gecko to the most interesting man in the world, that scene seems dated and somewhat maudlin. But that is the tone all of Don's campaigns take. Can you imagine his Glo Coat commercial, which wins him a Clio award in season four, ever appearing on television today? Even if the aesthetic was updated, the sincere tone of that commercial would seem strange to consumers today. That same sincerity informs the campaigns he develops season after season—Lucky Strike: "It's Toasted"; Hilton: "It's the same in every language." Irony is not a part of Don's advertising lexicon. He chooses to work with straightforward emotion and often uses the power of nostalgia as the base of his work.
Don's purported genius, it seems, lies not in his innovative use of irony, but in his ability to understand the way people respond to advertising. Though Draper disdains the ironic humor that was on the cutting edge of advertising in his day, the show does hint that his ads are progressive in their own way. They seek to shape consumers' desires rather than merely reflect them. Early in season four, Don gets in a heated argument with a female consumer researcher the firm has hired to help with an ad campaign for Pond's cold cream. The research she conducts suggests women would best respond to a campaign that insinuates that using the cold cream will lead to marriage. Draper rejects the idea, saying it reeks of thinking prevalent in the 1920s. He goes on to make the provocative argument that great advertising doesn't reflect conscious desires so much as stir latent ones and push consumers to change. As Julia Turner wrote in Slate:
This is, if you think about it, a somewhat profound case for the significance of the work they do at SCDP. Perhaps a forward-looking ad agency—one that rejects tame two-piece bathing suits and single girls desperate for a ring simply because the ideas feel square—contributes as much to social change as the most impassioned activist, if inadvertently.
This paean to the power of advertising—the notion that in addition to moving product it can cause a consumer group to think about itself in different and, in this situation, more progressive ways—feels inconsistent with Don's character as a whole. I'm not sure that I buy into the notion that Don, a womanizer and drunk, is actually interested in using his work to change people's perceptions about themselves.