Mad Men and the art of stealth branding

AMC’s hit series has turned product placement into an art form — you never know when an ad is just an ad.

Mad Men is lauded for many things — historical accuracy, wit, and layered characterization — but slaughterhouse gore is not considered its forte. Nonetheless, a brief detour into graphic violence proved a highlight of the recently concluded third season. During an office party at Sterling Cooper, the show’s fictional ad agency, a drunken secretary took the wheel of a lawn tractor made by John Deere, one of the firm’s clients, and quickly mangled the foot of a young executive. With Don Draper, the show’s hero, and Joan Harris, the resident bombshell, tending the wounded, it was left to senior partner Roger Sterling to reassure the nervous employees. “Believe me, somewhere in this business, this has happened before,” he says.

The incident left Mad Men’s characters fretting for their jobs and some viewers questioning whether it was a misguided bit of product placement. Once ridiculed as ham-handed, product placement has become its own art as companies find new, ever-more effective ways to integrate their wares into the entertainment itself. What makes the product integration on Mad Men so seamless is that the show needs brand names to give verisimilitude to its portrayal of the advertising world. Indeed, rather than irritating their audience, product integration gives Don Draper something to sell, clients to chase, and products to muse upon as he stares into the middle distance, imagining the next big step in advertising.

Mad Men has featured dozens of brand names — from Gillette to American Airlines — in all sorts of contexts, flattering and otherwise, but the John Deere incident demonstrates how hard it is to tell which ones the companies planted and which came unprompted from the show’s writers. (A statement issued by John Deere shortly after the episode aired made it clear the company had no part in its tractor’s use as an executive toe trimmer.)

“[The practice] definitely has evolved,” says Melissa Wasserman, vice-president of advertising sales marketing for AMC, Mad Men’s network. “The trend is toward integration, finding new ways to get products on television. But the more seamless it feels, the better reputation your shows will have.”

Wasserman, like everyone who works on Mad Men, is coy about its blend of art and commerce. Some companies lobby to appear, some pay, some strike cross-promotional deals and some have no involvement in their cameos at all. The show’s makers feel no compunction to say which products fit into which category. Ambiguity seems to be part of product placement’s refinement. “We don’t really distinguish between placed or not-placed products,” Wasserman says. “We don’t have a distinction about how the products got on there. The most important thing for us is that they be written appropriately.”

As an advertising tool, product placement existed long before Don Draper’s era. In 1925, the makers of The Lost World, an adaptation of an Arthur Conan Doyle novel, armed their hero with a Corona typewriter to record his encounters with dinosaurs. (In a cross-promotion, Corona hyped its products as the only typewriters worth taking up the Amazon.) But the practice has skyrocketed recently, as technological wonders like personal video recorders, which make it easier for viewers to avoid ads entirely, reached a critical mass. Product placement leapt 33.7% in 2007, according to PQ Media, a media research firm. There was a further 39% hike in early 2008, according to Nielsen. Advertisers spent roughly $3.6 billion on product placements last year. And consider this: The last season of American Idol featured 4,636 instances of product placement.

Wasserman says Mad Men’s writers, led by creator Matthew Weiner, are responsible for determining which brands suit the show’s needs, but that does not mean they are not open to lobbying. Last year, Weiner met with executives from Hilton Worldwide, the hotel chain, who suggested incorporating their founder, Conrad Hilton, into the show. After a little research, Weiner became enamoured with the idea, particularly the notion of presenting a businessman motivated by principles rather than just greed. “There were people like Hilton,” Mr. Weiner recently told The Wall Street Journal, “and I love what he was about.”

Over the course of the third season, “Connie” Hilton becomes a client and mentor to Draper, before severing their contract in the season finale. In his final scene, the hotel magnate gives the fictional ad man a fatherly talking to. “I got everything I have on my own,” he says. “It has made me immune to those who complain and cry because they can’t. I didn’t take you for one of them, Don.”

The portrayal of Hilton — shrewd businessman, vocal anti-Communist, deeply religious and principled — was accurate, according to Mark Young, the archivist at the Conrad Hilton College in Houston. “Hilton was a little beefier, but that’s splitting hairs,” he says. “The character has a direct approach like Hilton. Hilton was folksy but he was very much a businessman.”

Transforming Hilton, who died nearly two decades ago, into the fictionalized embodiment of the company he founded, a sort of upscale Colonel Sanders, made some sense to Young. “He had a sense of style, and he had this genius of knowing when to buy a hotel, when to sell, and I can see why for some people, particularly in other countries, the name ‘Hilton’ is synonymous with hotels,” Young says.

AMC and Hilton’s relationship extended beyond making Conrad Hilton famous once again for being something other than Paris’s grandfather. The companies co-sponsored a “Live Like a Mad Man,” contest, which promised three nights at the Waldorf-Astoria, a wardrobe item from the show and other swag. Similarly, Heineken’s partnership with the show sprawled beyond the small screen. Draper pursued Heineken as a client, pushing them to market their beer to housewives rather than beer halls. In the real world, the beer maker sponsored the show’s second-season finale and a high-profile wrap party.

John Deere, it goes without saying, did not throw a party the day their episode aired. In fact, John Deere learned of its appearance on the show at the same time as the viewing public, according to spokesman Ken Golden. “We did not endorse the activities that happened during that show,” Golden says. “We would never want our product to be displayed in an unsafe way.” American Airlines was also not consulted about an episode focused on the 1962 crash of one of its planes during takeoff in New York, an actual event. While the companies may not like how they are portrayed, there is little they can do, Golden says. “When products are publicly sold, you face the possibility that a show will display your product,” he says, adding the tractor that appeared was not yet available in 1963.

Even co-ordinated product placements can create problems. A public-relations team facilitated London Fog’s inclusion in the third-season premiere, with Draper crafting a campaign for the firm featuring a nude model and the slogan: “Limit your exposure.” The plotline annoyed Richard Gilbert, a noted ad man from the era, who complained London Fog was far more successful in 1963 than the show portrayed. Furthermore, Draper’s campaign would have never made it past magazine censors. “The show’s producers claim that they did meticulous research, and they obviously did — on girdles, cigarettes, clothing, furnishings, art work, etc. But they seem to have done little or none on advertising for an advertising-themed show,” Gilbert said in a missive sent to Ad Age magazine.

But London Fog was likely willing to brave anachronism to gain access to Mad Men’s upscale audience, according to David Dunne, a University of Toronto professor and former marketing executive. An appearance on Mad Men has additional benefits that inclusion on the latest sitcom or reality show lacks, Dunne says. “The setting reinforces that a brand has been around a long time — that’s a good thing.”

However, product placement has limitations. It can remind viewers about a brand’s existence and hike awareness, but it is generally a lousy tool for selling a product’s merits, Dunne says. Frank Zazza, whose company iTVx tracks the effectiveness of product placements, also questions whether Mad Men’s sophisticated techniques really capture consumer’s attention at all. The last time Mad Men actually drew consumers to a product was last season, during a subplot involving Clearasil.

“As far as a specific home run this season, there really hasn’t been one,” Zazza says. “They’ll mention brands, but the recall of that for the consumer might be 1% in the course of an entire episode.” Mad Men might fare better if they were blatant about it. Another critically acclaimed series, 30 Rock, has offered flagrant product placements for Snapple and Cisco that still keep the humour of the show. After praising one Verizon phone, Tina Fey once turned to the camera and asked “Can we have our money now?” It was, of course, a stunt that Mad Men could never execute — regardless of how much its characters would likely approve.