For “Mad Men” viewers, one of the most satisfying aspects of the show is the way Matthew Weiner and his team of writers fold the watershed events of the 1960s into the narrative.
The political events of the ’60s have been a part of the show since Season 1, when the ad agency Sterling Cooper threw an all-night party against the backdrop of the Kennedy/Nixon election. More recently, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination was announced during an advertising awards ceremony on the show. (This actually happened.)
Some people don’t realise the show depicts landmark developments in the advertising industry with equal precision. We spoke with real-life 1960s “Mad Man” Mel Abert, former art director at renowned ad agency Chiat/Day. Abert let us in on the developments in the show that ended up being huge for the industry.
Volkswagen’s “Think Small” And “Lemon” Ads
Volkswagen’s humorous ads turned heads when they debuted in 1959, and Ad Age later ranked it as the best advertising campaign of the 20th century. In the third episode of “Mad Men,” Don Draper and his team discuss the ads at length to figure out why they work. Those in the industry have some theories on why the “Think Small” campaign was effective.
“It was self-deprecating. It was the first post-modern ad,” Bob Garfield, an advertising industry consultant and former columnist for Advertising Age, told the BBC. “… That ad ushered in a whole era of humour, wit, and irony in advertising.”
William Bernbach of the then-nascent agency Doyle, Dane, Bernbach created the ad, which was his answer to a relatively small advertising budget and a car brand that Americans were predisposed to hate because it was German. (Remember, this was a post-World War II America.)
The ads took seeming faults about the car — its unique design, small size, and low horsepower — and turned them into selling points with humour and irony.
The Creative Revolution And Agencies Driven By Creatives
Many people in advertising see the ’60s as a golden age for the industry — and not just because of the three-martini lunches. Advertising during this creative revolution turned the old way of doing things on its head. Agencies ditched long paragraphs of copy for powerful visuals, snappy slogans, and humour.
Boisterous creatives of the era like Jay Chiat, Julian Koenig, and Mary Wells Lawrence led the industry with daring campaigns that many still remember today. Campaigns like Avis’ “We Try Harder,” the Pillsbury Doughboy, and Ronald McDonald all began in the 1960s.
The Importance Of Television And The Rise Of Media Buyers
Americans had heard of television by the 1930s, but it became “the national campfire” by the 1960s when people were watching an average of 5 hours of TV a day.
TV advertising initially came in the form of sponsorships of entire programs like the U.S. Steel Hour, but then networks began selling multiple 30-second spots to advertisers. The change gave rise to one of the most enduring aspects of advertising: the media buyer.
Media buyers negotiate and buy prime TV advertising space for their clients using notoriously complicated contracts. The best buyers can get special rates or advertising spots based on their relationship with the network and the amount of space they buy.
In the early 1960s, media buying departments were just forming, as demonstrated by Harry Crane’s nervous pitch to Roger Sterling in Season 2. By 1968, these departments were the most talked-about phenomenon on the advertising scene, the New York Times reported at the time.
Media buyers typically netted a 15% commission on ad buys for the agency, and they quickly gained power in agencies since TV deals were so expensive. In Season 6 of “Mad Men,” Harry Crane bursts into a board meeting and demands to be made a partner. He’s denied, but his demand for more recognition is a clear sign of the times.
“Media agencies are the ATM of the big advertising companies, they throw off a lot of cash,” advertising veteran Nick Manning told The Guardian “The big groups make a lot more money out of media buying than they do out of anything else.”
In the late 1990s, the biggest advertising conglomerates, including Omnicon and WPP Group, began consolidating the media departments of numerous agencies into stand-alone companies. The resulting companies — GroupM and OmnicomMediaGroup — are two of the most powerful media companies in the world.
The Rise Of The Computer
In the current season of “Mad Men,” Sterling Cooper & Partners installs a massive computer that takes the place of the creative lounge.
While Abert says “Mad Men” was right about how important the computer would become, he says the show jumped the gun on the dates. The prohibitively high cost of an IBM System/360 computer prevented all but the largest of agencies from having them that early, he says.
The New York Times noted in 1968 that early adopter agencies began moving computers into the office in the early 1960s, but most agencies including Abert’s firm Chiat/Day paid for subscriptions to computer services that provided the same data.
The computer paranoia of the “Mad Men” creative team ended up being well-founded, though. According to Abert, the introduction of the Apple Lisa and the Apple Mac in the early 80s “changed the advertising industry overnight.” Because the computer made creating graphics far easier, many companies took their marketing in-house. Advertising had to quickly adapt to the new world.
“There were creatives who were steeped in the old ways of doing things that didn’t want to change,” Abert said. “They were quickly doing nothing. Those that embraced the computer are still working.”
The Los Angeles Advertising Scene
At the end of Season 6 of “Mad Men,” important characters jockey to go to California to start a Los Angeles office of Sterling Cooper. A tiny California office would have been a demotion in earlier seasons, but by the late ’60s, L.A. represented a chance for creativity and freedom.
While New York remained the sophisticated hub of the industry, L.A. was rising up as a disruptive upstart, full of unconventional independents and new outposts from the Madison Avenue’s biggest agencies. The rise in prestige of L.A. was due in large part to the success of agencies like Chiat/Day, which became known for its inventive, risk-taking ads and unconventional approach to clients.
One of Chiat/Day’s more provocative ads was for Western Harness Racing, Inc., which wanted to promote night-time races at its Hollywood Park track. Believing the people they had to reach were bettors, Chiat/Day ran print ads with the headline, “How To Tell The Difference Between A Pacer and A Trotter.” The punchline: the difference between the two was illustrated not with horses, but with a cigar-smoking man on all fours.
Chiat/Day’s work may have led the pack, but they were far from the only risk-taking creatives in L.A. Advertising virtuoso Stan Freberg, who ran Freberg LTD in Los Angeles, was known for pioneering the use of humour in ads. He was responsible for this iconic 1960s Sunsweet Prunes ad, featuring science-fiction author Ray Bradbury:
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