Don Draper doesn't really write those 'Mad Men' ads
New York — – Matthew Weiner is no "mad man." He's never worked in advertising. But as the creator of "Mad Men," AMC's drama series about advertising in 1960s-era New York City, he's cooked up more than a few advertisements.
Lucky Strike cigarettes, Kodak Carousel slide projectors, Burger Chef, London Fog raincoats: These vintage products are part of the culture of "Mad Men," which let its audience experience them anew through the ads brainstormed by advertising whiz Don Draper and his colleagues — ads that in truth were conceived by Weiner with his fellow "Mad Men" writers as they fashioned each script.
"The advertising was always reverse-engineered to serve the theme of the story," Weiner explained as "Mad Men" neared its final seven-episode run (Sunday at 10 p.m. EDT).
Just think of Season 5's Jaguar account. It was landed only after the agency loaned sexy office manager Joan Harris to the lecherous Jaguar client for a night.
The accompanying tagline Weiner devised: "Jaguar. Finally something beautiful you can own," which echoed the action: For a night, the client could imagine he owned Joan.
Even so, the two former real-life ad men in the "Mad Men" writers' room shouted Weiner down.
"They said, 'That's a terrible ad!' They said people who can buy a Jaguar can own LOTS of beautiful things: 'So what's the difference here?' "
The difference they came up with was to add this one word: truly.
"We made the ad 'Finally something beautiful you can truly own.' The idea was you can possess this in many ways beyond the literal purchase." It served as a great way to frame the story's subtext, never mind that it wasn't necessarily a great ad.
"I'm not sure that, even with 'truly' in the tagline, it would have passed muster at a real agency," Weiner conceded. "But fortunately, that doesn't matter when you're creating both the pitch AND the client's response to it."
Weiner remains proud of Draper's footprints-in-the-sand pitch for the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Season 6, even though "Hawaii: The jumping off point" may have been a bit too avant garde for 1968. Note: the hotel wasn't pictured, nor was the traveler — just his clothes strewn on a beach with footprints leading to the water's edge.
"He got off the plane, took a deep breath, shed his skin and jumped off," Draper explained in his pitch, then asked rhetorically, "What happened to him?"
"I think, and I think people might think, that he died," said the client unhappily.
Suicide-by-drowning wasn't what Draper was selling, but his belly flop of an ad fit snugly into that episode, which focused on issues of mortality.
Weiner said that, in capturing the agency's sometimes contentious creative process, the writers' room at "Mad Men" sometimes took on the same atmosphere.
"The biggest argument we had about advertising, ever, was in Season 2," he said. "It was whether to dump Mohawk Airlines, so the agency would have a shot at American Airlines.
"I was like, 'That is so immoral! Don wouldn't DO that!' "
And, indeed, Don protested in the finished scene, noting that, despite being smaller than American, Mohawk didn't "deserve to be thrown out the door for a wink from American."
But back in the writers' room, one of the show's agency veterans had chortled at such naivete.
"He said to me, 'Are you nuts?!' " recalled Weiner, "and made a gesture with his hands like unbalanced scales — one hand, $1 million; the other hand, $7 million."
Weiner put that same sarcastic gesture in the episode, exhibited by account services head Duck Phillips, who then snorted, "Is there an issue?"
Don was overruled by this cynical logic. So was Weiner. But not before the "Mad Men" colleague threw up his hands and marveled, "This writers' room is just like an agency!"