The rise of Don Draper and the fall of advertising: ‘Mad Men’ and PR

Don Draper: a new kind of ad man (image ©HBO)

Don Draper: a new kind of ad man (image ©AMC)

When Don Draper, head of ‘Creative’ in the advertising firm at the centre of the hit TV series ‘Mad Men, rolls his eyes when someone tells him that ‘sex sells’ we know advertising is failing. When he suggests to a client that ‘If you don’t like the conversation, change the topic’ we know that PR is replacing it.

The reason why Draper is so successful and highly esteemed is that he recognises the importance of public relations. What he sells is the brand, the entire set of practices and beliefs that underpins the product, whether it be toothpaste, a bra, or an airline. Advertising is visual; public relations is verbal. The image of the woman draped across a car won’t sell anything; but the conversation, and the aspiration that is carried upon it, just might.

It’s no coincidence that Don Draper used to be a car salesman. That racket was the embodiment of an early, ‘hard’ approach to advertising: drown the client in details; appeal to base impulses; pressurise through conformity, and so on. There’s an example in the show where Draper’s creative team want to sell a Kodak carousel on its technical innovations; for Draper, it’s more about the memories that the projector helps relive. In ‘The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR’, Al and Laura Ries tell us: “The harder the sell the harder the prospect resists the sales message.” Hard selling didn’t work anymore for Draper in the car dealership; and now it won’t work for him at Sterling Cooper.

Advertising was then, PR is now. Only the ‘now’ of Mad Men is the early 1960s. As a result, Don Draper’s trajectory from car salesman to head of Creative at an advertising firm represents the beginnings of the movement from advertising to PR as the preferred approach to persuading the client.

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