Don Draper Wouldn’t Have Signed Off on This

Like most of us in advertising, I’m quietly obsessed with the AMC series “Mad Men.”  Not necessarily in the “Is-January-Jones-the-new-Grace-Kelly?” kind of way, or even, for the most part, with the story arc.  Although  those things, along with the cultural anthropology component of the show, make it endlessly fascinating and watchable.

But as an advertising person, it’s impossible not to recognize (and be endlessly fascinated by) the sort of rigidly utopian environment in which advertising existed during that period:   3 TV networks, a couple of national radio programs, maybe 5 magazines that counted, billboards and newspapers.  As far as figuring out how to get to an audience, that was pretty much it; those were the choices.  The rest of it was creative – but, in the context of the culture and the media, even creative had a certain enforced elegance to it – to  a degree that I’ve always thought of advertising from that era as an exercise in, I don’t know…commercial haiku, I guess.

Above all, the cultural context in which advertising lived during it’s mid-century heyday had rules.  Chief among them?  Loyalty.

Advertising, of course is all about loyalty to a brand.  But in today’s fractured media environment – where consumers are pelted with messages, entreaties and information 24/7 –  loyalty is something that’s increasingly hard to come by. These days, marketers tend to aim lower,  and talk in terms of “relationships” with brands.

50 years ago, it wasn’t about a “relationship’.  It was about getting hooked up-  and staying hooked up.   Think of your grandfather – chances are, he drove the same brand of car his entire life, smoked the same brand of cigarette, and watched and trusted either Cronkite or Brinkley. But never both.

That old-school code of loyalty cut both ways: it wasn’t just sought by advertisers – it was also expected from them.   Which is why it’s impossible to imagine, say, movie actor Ronald Reagan turning his back on GE to pitch Westinghouse appliances in the mid-fifties.  Or Bill Cosby switching pudding pops.   Just wouldn’t happen.

Which pretty much brings me to my point:  What’s Jon Hamm doing showing up as the voice for Mercedes Benz?

Jon Hamm, of course, is the actor who portrays Don Draper – the Creative Director for fictional ad agency Sterling Cooper and spiritual center of Mad Men.   Okay…an actor who plays an advertising guy (and happens to be blessed with a very cool persona/voice) gets a lucrative advertising gig as cool persona/voice for prestigious auto brand. Namely, Mercedes Benz.

The problem, of course,  is that Mad Men’s primary (and sometimes only) advertiser is BMW.

It would seem,  particularly in an era when car companies seek out celebrities for voice work (Jeff Bridges for Hyundai, Will Arnett for GMC), that BMW would have tied this one up ahead of time – or raised holy hell when the spots hit the air.

But, I guess not.

Maybe it’s just me, but the whole thing just feels a little off.     There’s a part of me that wants the advertisers for Mad Men to act like the advertising clients of Sterling Cooper  – loyal and straightforward.  Not out of some misplaced sense of nostalgia (I was an infant at the time in which the events on Mad Men take place) but more out of a desire to see a single cool idea fully realized. Because in some roundabout kind of way, the whole Hamm-as-the-voice-of-Mercedes thing does more harm to the show than it does to the advertisers.  In the idealized, time capsule world of Mad Men, John Hamm would be hawking BMWs.  Seamlessly, as an extension of the show, in the spirit of the single sponsored variety shows from the 50’s and 60’s.  Instead, he does Mercedes. And we’re reminded, none too subtly, how times have changed.

And that Mad Men is fiction.

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Christian Boswell is President & Executive Creative Director at bfw Advertising in Boca Raton, Florida. bfw Advertising is a full service marketing and communications firm with strong competencies in new media. The South Florida advertising agency creates and builds client brands with strategic thinking and on-target creative executions. For more information call (561) 962-3300 or visit http://www.gobfw.com/ on the web.

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