Villing & Company

Mad Men Unstuck in Time, Part 1 - Present Perception of Past Ads

Are you hooked on the AMC hit Mad Men? Yeah, me too. It gives me a great answer to the question, "So what do you do?" My current go-to is: "You watch Mad Men? My job is exactly like that." Okay, it's barely like that. I can report that I have never witnessed a coworker slug a tumbler of scotch before launching it at the wall during a client meeting, and I'm sure none of us have secret offspring with one another. Almost sure. But the Mad Men answer flies better at a party. It's better marketing.

My favorite part of the show is when the characters show off fake ads of real national clients from the '60s. I've marveled at how the writers get away with using real brands, sometimes in negative portrayals. One episode had a Jaguar marketing exec insistent on visiting a brothel as a minor plot point. They even pulled off a fictionalized Conrad Hilton. Maybe it adds to the mystique of still-thriving brands just to be on a hit show.

This got me wondering how realistic the fake ads depicted on the show are. Are they competitive with real ads from the era? Are they even good knockoffs of ads from that decade, or would real '60s Madison Avenue ad men find them foreign? This article was enlightening. One thing that struck me was how much the ads depicted on the show are more like ads from decades after the '60s. They get the typefaces and look right, but a lot of the real stuff from the 1960s is cheesier—to our contemporary sensibilities, anyway—than the stuff marketing genius Don Draper comes up with on the show. And the work that wasn't cheesier was a lot different in approach and style.

Compare this fake Life cereal ad from the show to a real one that ran in the '60s. You can't help but feel that Life's Mikey from the '70s couldn't just be erased from the minds of the writers when they invented a plausible ad. That's how it works, doesn't it? As time goes by, American culture is molded by books, music, movies and ads that get stuck in our subconscious. What people will consider cheesy 50 years from now may surprise us. And the types of ads they might be running might seem strange now. Just imagine how confusing, even meaningless, an ad with a web address or reference to the word "hashtag" would have seemed to people in the eighties.

All of this got me interested in examining some ads from the last century to see first-hand how much the advertising landscape has changed. In the next article, we'll start with ads from the turn-of-the-century through the roaring '20s.

Filed Under: creative

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