Mad Men's Mixed Blessing for Marketers

Photograph courtesy Banana Republic

With just two weeks of Mad Men left to go, it’s clear that the delay of season five didn’t dent the show’s cultural impact. That’s a mixed blessing to anyone whose brand is associated with AMC’s high-style depiction of Madison Avenue in the 1960s. (Creator Matthew Weiner’s refusal to allow more product placement in the show was cited as a factor in the long hiatus.) The level of love or loathing for the series among marketers may depend, in part, on whether their company paid to be there.

Photograph courtesy Banana Republic
At Banana Republic, consumer enthusiasm for the Mad Men Collection it launched in March helped the Gap brand deliver its best first-quarter sales ever. That’s despite limiting the number of pieces to 40, down from 65 types of clothing and jewelry in its first Mad Men line launched last August. The Estée Lauder Mad Men Collection—which was also launched in March with one “Cherry” lipstick and a cream blush in “Evening Rose”—has generated an “amazing reaction” in terms of media buzz, according to spokeswoman Samantha Kaufman, and will lead to a second collection timed to season six next year.

Jaguar, on the other hand, could hardly celebrate its exposure in a May 27 episode that portrayed the E-Type sports car as unreliable and had the fictional head of its dealers association make his vote in an ad pitch contingent on having sex with office manager Joan Holloway Harris. Jaguar USA’s Twitter feed went from urging followers to retweet “if taking a ride with Joan Holloway in a Jaguar would make you #FeelAlive” a week earlier to cryptically stating “loved the pitch, didn’t love the process” after the show.

So far this season, the show has averaged about 2.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen, up from 2.2 million in season four and 946,000 its first year. While that’s a fraction of the number who tune in for, say, Sunday Night Football or American Idol, it’s proven to be a powerful fan base. New York publicist Alison Brod compares the series’ impact with HBO’s Sex in the City, which made Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahniks part of the vocabulary a decade ago. Brod credits Mad Men with reviving interest in everything from martinis to La-Z-Boy recliners. “There’s a smoky, sexy sultriness to Mad Men,” says Brod, whose eponymous firm is known for its creative product placement. Series such as The Sopranos may have built similar cult followings, but that probably didn’t move much product beyond pasta and Frank Sinatra tunes. And while fans might envy the accents they hear on Downton Abbey, does anyone want to dress like those characters?

Mad Men, in contrast, is a celebration of consumption and style at a time when both were at their height. While its plot often revolves around products, how they’re portrayed is not always predictable. Lucky Strikes are a struggle to market when their products are already suspected of causing cancer. Alcohol brands are less woven into the script than alcoholism. Unless a brand, such as Heineken, has paid for product placement, it’s hard to know if it will come out ahead. And of course Mad Men’s prism on the 1960s remains a largely white New York world that excludes many of the potential customers that marketers are eager to reach.

Even the characters aren’t all that reliable as marketing vehicles. Betty Draper and Joan Holloway, the cool style icons of season one, have seen their characters morph this season into a dumpy housewife and a single mother who sleeps with a client to get ahead. Holloway’s curvy figure, which may have inspired Mad Men designer Janie Bryant’s limited collection of shapewear now sold through, is less a source of empowerment when it’s used to please a Jaguar dealer. (Maidenform spokeswoman Norah Alberto notes that “sales have been very positive” and the styles are “modeled off of actual garments from the Maidenform archives with a sexy and modern interpretation from Janie Bryant.”) Jon Hamm gave an eloquent pitch for Jaguar in his role as Don Draper this past week, but Mercedes-Benz is the car company that recently hired the actor to be the voice of its brand in U.S. commercials.

(Joan and Betty were also featured in Mattel’s Mad Men Barbie collection. Whether their fates are a factor in why the dolls now sell for $55 instead of the $74.95 price tag when they launched in July 2010 is unclear. The collection is rounded out with dolls for Don Draper, who doesn’t really suit Mattel’s “dashing ladies’ man” label this season, and Roger Sterling, a character who recently initiated his second divorce while high on LSD.)

Far safer, it seems, to produce products that key off the romance that surrounds Mad Men than appear as part of the plot. Isabel Cavill, a senior retail analyst at Planet Retail, argues that the brand has clearly been a boon to the conservative image of Banana Republic. In her view, “it creates buzz for a brand that otherwise doesn’t have much differentiation in the U.S. market.” H&M had a similar instinct when launching a clothing line modeled on the far riskier property, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. While Cavill says Mad Men’s fashion appeal could wane with Banana Republic’s target customer of working women over 30 as the series moves into the late 1960s, she suspects the retailer will look more to Jackie O than Janis Joplin as it cribs styles from that period.

Many in the industry aren’t all that worried about the show’s twists and turns. Baba Shetty, chief strategy officer at Boston ad agency Hill Holliday, worked on a special issue of Newsweek that evoked the advertising and feel of the era. “I think Mad Men is a source of endless fascination for people,” says Shetty. For the right kind of brand, he argues, all that matters is that it “remain a masterfully produced high-quality narrative about the 1960s.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE