When I began this blog, one of the initial ideas for a regular feature was to do recaps of Mad Men episodes. After all, this blog is about discussing the impact of marketing on the broader culture. No TV show, now or probably ever, covers that ground better than Mad Men’s look at the world of 1960s advertising. Plus, it’s a fantastic show that’s worthy of analysis.
After this season’s premiere aired, I felt inspired to write about it, but quickly realized that I did not want to do a full episode recap. There are a lot of good writers already doing that sort of thing, and providing in-depth, critical content analysis of an hour-long drama isn’t necessarily my strong suit. Instead, I decided that for the duration of the show’s run, I am going to provide a more informal reaction piece to every episode, discussing whatever aspect jumps out at me at the time. With that said, the remainder of this post serves of the first installment of the Marketing Smart Aleck’s Mad Men Reaction feature.
Disclaimer: Read no further if you want to avoid potential spoilers of Mad Men, Episode 701!
This episode resonated for me as it featured a few lessons right out of the introductory Marketing Principles class that I’m teaching this semester. Early on in the episode, Joan meets with the young Marketing Director of Butler Footwear, one of the agency’s clients. The kid is a smug, freshly-minted MBA who wants to end Butler’s relationship with Sterling Cooper & Partners and handle the advertising in-house. He begins the conversation by lecturing Joan about his focus on the “Four Ps” of marketing, which actually says a lot about the character, the time period and the subtext of the scene to viewers who understand what he is referring to.
The Four Ps, also known as “the marketing mix” were a fairly new concept to the business world in 1969, when the episode is set, but are now standard-issue orthodoxy for anyone who works in marketing or has taken a college marketing course. In my class, they are covered in the very first lecture. For the benefit of the uninitiated, the Four Ps refer to the four broad areas that marketers need to concern themselves with: Product, Place, Price and Promotion. Product and price are self-explanatory. Place refers to both the locations where customers can obtain the product as well as the distribution channels that the product moves through along the way. Promotion refers to all of the different ways that a marketer makes customers aware of the product and tries to encourage purchase. Promotion includes advertising, but also additional elements like public relations, personal selling, and sales promotions.
By invoking the Four Ps, the young executive wasn’t just showing off his fancy new business school jargon, he was also telling Joan that advertising was just one component of his holistic approach to marketing, and a shrinking one at that. He was also — as Mad Men is so good at doing — giving us a history lesson about the development of marketing in America. In the 1950s and most of the 1960s, advertising was the undisputed king of selling products to the masses. Real world Madison Avenue giants like Ted Bates, Rosser Reeves and David Ogilvy, along with their fictional contemporary Don Draper, held sway. In that era, the conventional wisdom was that selling a product was all about what you said and how you said it via advertising. By the end of the 1960s, that mindset was beginning to give way to acknowledgement that the success of the product was also heavily influenced by considerations like developing features of the product to match consumer wants and needs, price points, where and how the product was made available in the marketplace, and using coupons, rebates, in-store merchandising, etc. to stimulate sales. All of those were considerations prior to the 1960s, of course, but modern marketing represented the first widespread attempt to deal with them scientifically, as part of a structured system — inevitably at the expense of many traditional advertising budgets.
That last point gives us some clues about the subtext of the episode, and I suspect the trajectory of the final season of the series. It suggests that we are entering a world where Don Draper and his cohorts at the agency are much less relevant than when we first met them in 1960, not only because all of the hippies in 1969 were rejecting materialism, but because Corporate America was exploring new ways to sell things. The magic of Don’s slicked-back client pitches, reliant as it was on his personal charisma and the mystique of “The Big Idea,” is waning and giving way to a more systematic, data-driven, prosaic reality. That is to say that the series narrative is winding down at the same historical point that a widely-regarded Golden Age of Madison Avenue was coming to a close. No ending for Mr. Draper and company could be more fitting.