Only one episode left before Don Draper and his band of merry madmen head off to that great pitch deck in the sky. Self-loathing cheat, serial lady-killer, fraud, alcoholic, ad man – I love Don Draper. I love his sharp lapels, sharper hair parting, barbed looks, impatience, and his crass self-entitlement with the opposite sex. Of course women fall into bed with him so often and so easily; he makes his living making people love the unloved and unlovable.
Most of all, I love the show’s premise that Don’s ideas matter; that creativity matters. Don’s Kodak carousel meeting goes down as TV’s greatest love letter to its advertising benefactor. “This device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine,” he says. “It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.”
Don’s pitch was always the sexiest thing on the screen. His pre-noon scotch, sidecars at lunch, cocktails by five, and the sex between meals are all accepted thanks to the beauty of his campaign pitch. Don is a demigod for every wallflower brand whose plea to the agency is: “Make me memorable.” His superpower can turn things from unnoticed to chosen.
Mad Men takes us back to a time before computers, trading desks, spreadsheet ad buys; before the dirty discovery that segmenting, targeting, and repetition could move the needle more than inspiration. The threat of those big computers installed at Sterling Cooper last season has long since come to pass: repeat something often enough to the right niche and it doesn’t matter how great or how shoddy the treatment. Nowadays it doesn’t even matter how good the algorithm is; we’re tuning it all out.
Don’s halcyon ad world died long, long ago. The consumer has taken control – literally. We’re more consumed with our own selfie images than professionally produced shots or spots designed to create desire. We no longer know how to love Don Draper or his work. We’re too intoxicated with ourselves. No amount of creativity or Draper brand message magic can divert our attention from our daily lives. We just don’t look up, and if we do, we just don’t care.
The means by which we watch Mad Men has changed a great deal from the Sixties and Seventies. It’s on demand, time-shifted, tablet-driven, yet the advertising that fuels the Mad Men series remains virtually unchanged since Sterling Cooper’s heyday. This conflict would surely drive one of those classic Draper dismissive glares – as if to say “How can you even think this is a good idea?” The man who once claimed that advertising was all about happiness would take out his poster boards and show us how advances in technology have changed the way anywhere-on-anything digital consumers watch content and how the same ads may not make them happy anymore.
The nuclear family is not huddled around the TV set waiting for the next ad break to come and tell them what product will next fulfil the American dream. In fact, no one in the family is engaged with anything other than Draper himself and they are probably watching him seduce multiple women on multiple devices at multiple times. On my tablet, the same disruptive ads that were the hallmark of TV’s golden age now look like they’re from the Bronze Age. At this point, Don would be pointing at pictures of wooly mammoths: “This is what your ads look like to people.” How do you think today’s media-sophisticated swipe generation audience responds to advertising that often appears to drag its knuckles across the digital dance floor?
Don would probably pause here for dramatic effect and ask his assistant to hold all his calls before the final flourish. These days the most effective way to talk to the consumer is in situ, in the content itself. And if you’re in the content, then the content itself controls the message, it pilots the narrative. The old Don Draper would find ways of making a brand stand out from the crowd, outside the content. Today’s Don Draper would be making brands look as authentic as possible in content. Why interrupt the show, why remove yourself from the people’s attention when you could fit right in? Fitting in is now the only way of being noticed.
I already miss Don. I miss his wicked ways, his search for love, and his ability to get away with anything but love. The series end will leave a hole in my heart where his Kodak, Jaguar, and Lucky Strike ad messages used to be. How are we going to deal with his absence? The advertising-themed show is available on demand complete with advertising we will never even notice. Now that’s an irony Don Draper would love.