Fantasy vs. Reality in Mad Men's Ad Campaigns

How Accurate Were The Ads of Mad Men?

Mad Men
Mad Men. Getty Images

Mad Men is no longer on the air, but when it was, it was a powerhouse of creativity and inspired writing, bringing the sixties back to life with gusto. It hooked millions of viewers, and showed them a sign of the advertising world that most had never seen before. And that included the commercials. 

Many of the Mad Men advertising campaigns used in the TV show featured the actual ads that ran back in the day.

However, although the ads were real, they were often selling dreams, using fantasy to persuade people to buy their clients' products and services.

A current version of that technique is called "aspirational advertising;" marketing whose goal is to persuade you to improve your status through buying better brands. A bit less dodgy, but equally effective. And if you think you're immune to such blatant mind games, ask yourself why you're longing after that BMW, Benz or Lexus? A car is just a car, right?

Some of most the inventive, and yes, manipulative advertising that ever appeared ran during the '60s, changing the ad game forever. And so we pause now to honor and deconstruct some of the real-life ads that appeared in Mad Men, the AMC TV series.

I Dreamt I Was a Knockout in My Maidenform Bra.

Picture an attractive blond lady preening in a boxing rink, wearing only a bra, silver shorts, high heels, and boxing gloves.

What could be more Freudian? Sex. Strength. Independence. Dominance. Even today in the Lady Gaga bare-all era, this ad still generates heat, but it was a bonfire when it appeared the February 3, 1961 issue of Life Magazine.  Ms. Maidenform was a poster girl of that age's fulfillment fantasies and budding female empowerment movement.

The campaign, launched in 1949, ranked 28th in Advertising Age's 100 most memorable ad campaigns. That it ran for more than twenty years speaks to its brilliance.

To Norman, Craig & Kunnel -- the ad agency who created the campaign in 1949 -- congratulations on creating a piece of advertising history. 

Kodak Introduces The Carousel. The New Slide Projector.

It's just a slide projector, right? Not even close. During one of the most memorable scenes of Mad Men, Don Draper presents the idea for the product's name and ad campaign at a Kodak prospect pitch.

As images of his wife and kids appear, Draper tears up, perhaps recalling the better days of a failing marriage. His speech transforms the utilitarian projector into a dream machine: "It takes us to a place where we ache to go again… It's called The Carousel. It lets us travel around and around and back home again."

The real ad for the Kodak Carousel was nowhere near as poetic, or enchanting. "Relax! The spillproof tray shows 80 slides...automatically!" was the functional headline they ran with. 

If You're Still Getting Wet, Start Getting Tough. Fire Yours. Hire Ours. Right Guard.

In the Sixties, Right Guard was a most manly brand. During a brainstorming session, a Sterling Cooper writer suggested using an astronaut as a spokesperson.

The heroic male icon not breaking a sweat while hurtling into outer space. But Draper (and the real agency) had a better idea. Sex sells, even subtly. The actual ad showed a woman's hand clutching a can of Right Guard aerosol spray, promising a tough solution to perspiration. The suggestion of a great love life trumps all, albeit through dry armpits. And in reality, that's just the ad that ran. 

Aside from the ads in the series, there were plenty of real-life Madison Avenue giants whose work changed the culture, and made cash registers ring for their clients. Here are three...

Bill Bernbach, the Creative Genius

Bill Bernbach was a pioneer, recognizing that consumers were humans, and wanted to be engaged versus hard sold. As a result his ad agency - Doyle, Dane, Bernbach (DDB) -- put a premium on creativity and was the first to combine copywriters with art directors to brainstorm ideas.

DDB was behind the campaign that revolutionized the way we look at foreign cars. Showing a tiny picture of a Volkswagen Beetle on a stark white page, the headline read "Think Small."

Compared to American car branding, the counter-intuitive approach stood out, and sold a ton of counter-culture VW's. DDB also made a lot of money for Avis, Life Cereal and Polaroid. They were so good, they're often mentioned in Mad Men as Sterling Cooper's competition.

Mary Wells, the First Female CEO of Advertising

In a Mad Man's game, Mary Wells succeeded spectacularly. Now in her '80s and still working as a consultant, Wells or her agency were responsible for an astonishing number of memorable tag lines and creative concepts, including:

  • Plop, Fizz, Fizz for Alka Seltzer
  • I love New York
  • Trust the Midas Touch
  • At Ford, quality is job one
  • Flick your Bic
  • Raise your hand if you're Sure
  • Friends don't let friends drive drunk

One of the first women to become CEO of a publicly traded company, Wells was the highest paid ad exec of her day before selling her shop.

David Ogilvy, the Mad(ison Avenue) Scientist

But no advertising discussion would be complete without mentioning David Ogilvy, labeled in a recent biography the "King of Madison Avenue." A Brit who conquered U.S. ad clients, what distinguished Ogilvy was his reliance on consumer research.

Part art, part science, Ogilvy's ads used long copy, filled with facts that he knew would engage potential customers. "I prefer the discipline of knowledge to the anarchy of ignorance," he said. And so did his agency's many accounts, which have included Sears, Pepperidge Farm, the Government of Puerto Rico, and Schweppes.