Opinion

The era of nostalgia: Going back to the Mad Men way of advertising

6 min read

01 April 2015

As the last few episodes of the popular television show Mad Men are set to start airing later this week, viewers have been treated to an inside look at the height of print advertising in the 1960’s. The lessons to be learnt are vast.

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The 1960s is often dubbed a time of radical change. The world of advertising had stagnated during the war as companies focused on patriotism. But war had redefined cultural interaction, namely the role of women in the workplace. And in Madison Avenue, the location of the critically acclaimed drama Mad Men, barriers began to fall. A wave of young art directors, such as Leo Burnett and David Ogilvy, introduced a new form of energy, style, wry humour and wit never seen before.

It was said that Burnett believed in “the power of truth simply told”. He disliked tricks and the use of sex and contests to lure consumers. Essentially, they cut off the fat of previously text-heavy print and slimmed it down to an image and a couple of lines, maybe even just a motto.

In her book “A romp through 1960s America”, Natasha Vargus-Cooper explained: “While you did have Marlboro man and you had this whole essay that appeared with it, ultimately it was just that picture of the Marlboro man. With the Volkswagen campaign, it was ‘think small’. If you look in fashion at the same time, you have men’s suits getting narrower, dropping one button, thin ties, flattered trousers.

“You can say one of the reasons why that happened was that, coming out of the Second World War, there’s no room for flourishes. The same thing happened in women’s clothing: all of a sudden you can see women’s waists. Everybody’s thinking, ‘We just got out of this crisis; let’s come out of it with less baggage’. So the trend at the time in advertising was similar, going toward a kind of wry minimalism.”

Below, Doug Weaver, CEO of Upstream Group, speaks about how Draper is right in “occupying the space between the customer’s ears” and taking the minimal approach.

This was the true era of the Mad Men.

The show revealed how some of the 20th century’s biggest brands became what they are today. And arguably, their marketing success stems from a blend of old and new. Who can forget the Kodak Carousel pitch in the first season?

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During the pitch, for a slide projector called the Wheel by Kodak employees, Mad Men’s Don Draper projected a series of images from his own family album.

“This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine,” he explained. “It goes backwards, forwards, and takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s the carousel.”

It’s such a powerful pitch that the agency keeps reworking it over the years.

This manipulation of nostalgia is once again seen when Peggy Olson wins the Popsicle deal by explaining: “When I was little, my mother would take a Twin Pop and break it half and give one to me and one to my sister.”

And in season four, despite still being drunk, Draper’s speech at a client meeting for Life Cereal revolves around the same technique.

“You remember something from the past, and it feels good, but it’s a little bit painful,” he said.

Vargus-Cooper took a look at the real Mad Men behind the 60s’ ad revolution and reckons she found why television viewers find the ad businesses back then so appealing.

“What you see at Sterling Cooper [the fictional agency where Draper works], anytime that Don pitches a campaign, [it’s] actually part of a creative revolution,” she said. “In Don’s work we see the idea that advertising should be less about arguing the virtues of a product and more about having some sort of emotional connection to it.”

It’s true that they tried to recreate the magic of older memories.

Rei Inamoto, chief creator of AKQA believes that what made this golden era of advertising great needs to be used today. “Connection builds a brand now,” he said.

Some 60 years after he found his first agency, Oglivy’s principles, used by the original mad men, are still deemed relevant today. You’ve got to pull some heartstrings. 

More than gimmicks or humour, people often respond more to earnest emotion.

Draper’s very definition of advertising is “based on one thing: happiness”. Look past the product or service to see what you want to make potential buyers feel. This is often done by telling a story. Consumers don’t want facts and figures, they want to be able to relate.