The secret of Mad Men’s marketing success revealed

Nostalgic screens. Sky Atlantic

As has become standard practice for any contemporary television production, the seventh and final season of Mad Men – AMC’s 1960s period drama – has been preceded by a torrent of promotional material. First came a glorious psychedelic poster by legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser – the same man responsible for the iconic I ♥ NY logo.

And then there was that cryptic 15-second teaser featuring the now iconic Don Draper disembarking an aeroplane in slow motion set against a clear blue sky. Despite (or perhaps because of) its brevity and simplicity, the promo has caused widespread debate about what it might mean for the final season.

Is Don really relocating to LA? The last-minute turn of events in the season six finale suggested he would remain in New York. But as people continue to debate what these teasers mean for the series, I want to pause for a moment – like the reclined, silhouetted figure of Draper – to appreciate the art of Mad Men’s marketing in its own right. After all, it’s what these Madison Avenue men have been doing so well since we first met them back in 2007.

Speculate away. Sky Atlantic

I’ve enjoyed Man Men’s extra-textual productions almost as much as I’ve enjoyed the series itself.

In an increasingly cluttered and competitive digital media sphere, branding has become integral to distinguish one product from the endless ocean of others (see Cathy Johnson’s excellent Branding Television for more on this). As a series set in the golden age of marketing, it could be argued that Mad Men has a distinct advantage. Its own campaign can emulate this, take things back to basics, too. So it is fitting and perhaps unsurprising that it has produced some of the most iconic and striking campaigns I’ve seen in television over its seven-year tenure.

For a series that celebrates the analogue (until very recently it was still shot on film, a rarity in contemporary television production), Mad Men has adapted well to the marketing logic of an altogether different era. But the secret of its marketing success stems from its fusion of analogue and digital – a blend of old and new. This is captured by that now infamous Kodak Carousel pitch at the end of the first season, in which Don poignantly appeals to the twin lure of nostalgia and innovation.

In terms of its retro marketing strategies, Mad Men has resorted to an older form of advertising, one more prevalent during the 1960s when the series is set – product placement. With viewers now regularly bypassing commercial breaks (whether that’s through downloading, streaming, DVD box sets or simply fast-forwarding with their Sky+ box), product placement has emerged as a more sure-fire way to circumvent these problems and secure a more steady revenue stream.

In the case of Mad Men, product placement is not so much surreptitious as it is integral – although the producer’s have been deliberately vague about which product placements have been paid for by sponsors and which are simply part of the narrative. Either way, we are encouraged to reminisce through the use of genuine advertising campaigns, even if, as is the case for many viewers, these predate our own lived experience. And so, Mad Men borrows an old strategy to deal with the challenges of a new mediascape.

Alongside product placement, and as with the most recent promo poster, the series has unearthed or renewed interest in other important figures and practises in the history of advertising, and graphic design, which similarly appeal to our sense of nostalgia. For instance, AMC/Lions Gate commissioned an original work by Brian Sanders for the season six poster – another example of that winning old-but-new hybrid formula.

Brian Sanders’s poster. Sky Atlantic

The poster, like the series itself, seems preoccupied with this marriage of old and new - specifically in its reference to the ongoing tension between past Don and present Don through the inclusion of a double walking in the other direction. So there are interesting and subtle parallels in the way that the marketing of Mad Men operates, that seem to reflect or tell us something more about the series itself.

In a recent interview in Variety, Matt Weiner, the series creator, said, “I’m going to miss [Mad Men] more than you will.” That might well be the case, but I for one will also miss the ingenious, cryptic, iconic, nostalgic and powerful marketing campaigns that have accompanied it over the years.

Mad Men season seven premieres in the United States on 13 April. It debuts on Sky Atlantic in the UK on 16 April.