The Problem of Marketing 'Mad Men'

For a show about advertising, it's been remarkably difficult to promote.

meslow_madmenmarketing_post.jpg
AMC

Mad Men, the shiniest jewel in AMC's original-programming crown, continues to present an intriguing, beguiling question for the network: How do you market a show about marketing? In a 2009 interview with the New Yorker, AMC head of marketing Linda Schupack described the difficulty of creating the ad campaign for Mad Men's first season, when it was an "enigmatic" show starring "a cast of unknowns" on a network with virtually no original programming. In a later article in the New York Times, Kevin Beggs, the president for television programming and production at Lionsgate concedes that despite its cultural cache, "Mad Men is not an easy show to promote. [...] It's not Cougar Town or Desperate Housewives, where you get it in one line."

The ad campaigns crafted by Mad Men's main characters have often drawn praise from real-life marketing experts. But Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is marketing baked beans and Jaguars, not a one-hour cable drama—a challenge that might even beguile Don Draper. In advertising terms, Mad Men is a great product, but a hard sell, and a niche product at best. Despite Don Draper's dismissal of the idea that "sex sells," AMC's marketing has routinely put the show's sex appeal front and center (the earliest promos for the series spend as much time on an unnamed burlesque dancer as they do on Peggy Olsen). It's a tried-and-true formula that the network revisits every season; earlier this year, Mad Men-promoting taxicabs were emblazoned with the phrase "Adultery is back," which boils the series' five seasons of complex, interconnected professional and personal relationships into a cuckold's version of musical chairs.

The story behind Mad Men's marketing campaigns has at times resembled the plot of the show itself. The season three promo poster created by ad agency the Refinery, which features Don in his office with water rising around him, was selected over the works of three rival firms—a storyline that could have come straight from Mad Men. In season four, Peggy found a way to sell Sugarberry Hams by hiring two actresses to stage a fight over the last remaining ham in a supermarket - an approach similar to a Mad Men publicity stunt by AMC which saw paid actors in period clothing handing out Sterling Cooper business cards in Grand Central Station. And there's a real-world Peggy Olsen story in artist Dyna Moe, who started off by making a Mad Men-Christmas card for a cast member, and eventually impressed AMC enough that she was hired for the promotional website MadMenYourself.com and commissioned for a collection of her work called Mad Men: The Illustrated World.

Mad Men: The Illustrated World which features bold, angular drawings directly based on advertising art from 1950s and 1960s is one example of the easiest way to make authentic-seeming Mad Men merchandise: recreate the past. , Many of the series' most successful licensed products feel like they came straight from a time machine. Banana Republic's enormously popular Mad Men-themed clothing line, which was created in collaboration with series costumer Janie Bryant, was recently credited with giving the company its best-ever first quarter sales. Jessica Pare's version of the classic French song "Zou Bisou, Bisou," which featured heavily in Mad Men's fifth-season premiere, was released on a 7"-vinyl with a period-appropriate record sleeve.

Presented by

Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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