Mad Men and Doyle Dane Bernbach

Believe it or not, I’ve just started watching Mad Men. I’m all the way back at Season 1, Episode 4– so far behind that I can read TK’s posts on the current episodes without spoiling anything for myself as the plot has moved on to completely alien terrain from what I’m familiar with.

I was delighted to see Episode 3 open with Don Draper looking at the Volkswagen ‘Think Small’ ad— a campaign that changed advertising to the degree that I show it to my graphic design history students— and thought that the campaign was cleverly used in the episode to amplify some of the larger points of the show. I should hedge this last comment by saying that I haven’t really seen enough of the show to weigh in authoritatively yet on what the larger themes of the show actually are, but so far I take it as a snapshot of the last days of trying to have a top-down, hierarchical society in America before pluralism stepped in and turned everything on its head. If you accept that as an underlying theme of Mad Men, you can definitely say that the appearance of Doyle Dane Bernbach– the agency behind the VW campaign– marked a tipping point in the real-life narrative.

Doyle Dane Bernbach opened its doors in 1949 and became known for its determination to ‘take the exclamation point out of advertising’– meaning, among other things, less nuptial script, grinning Stepford wives and long-winded copy stuffed full with promises (1940s ads were really, really long on copy). By the early 1960s, removing the exclamation point had become imperative: the murmurs of a civil rights movement and engagement in Vietnam increased the public’s appetite for real reportage and decreased its tolerance for Eisenhower-era fluff. TV revenues, meanwhile, had cut into magazine revenues to the point that budgets and physical formats were smaller, meaning the exclamation points couldn’t ever be as large or glamorous again as they had been in the past. Finally, I imagine that TV, by the nature of its very medium, probably inspired a move towards intelligent advertising: in print, you can keep making the same corny over-promises over and over again and never get called on it. But, in the world of TV, you have to have an actual live person making these claims (‘gum that cleans and straightens your teeth!’). I’m guessing that the humiliation gleaned from this experience- for all parties involved- partly inspired a move towards more intelligent advertising on some psychological level.

DDB was the first agency of note to try selling stuff by leveling with the audience and appealing to its intelligence. The ‘Think Small’ ad spoke directly to a potential product liability and used a white space in a surprising way to stand apart from the crowd:

Subsequent ads in the campaign– which I just noticed was voted best of the century by something called– included the car with a caption ‘Lemon’:

… and a play on the homeliness of the lunar module:

I loved the verdict delivered in the Mad Men episode, where all the characters basically dump on it (‘They only used a half-page ad for a full-page buy… you can’t even see the product!’) but then Draper points out, ‘Love it or hate it, we’ve been talking about it now for 20 minutes’.

The corporate structure in Mad Men was also typical of most ad agencies of the day: as is shown several times in the first few episodes, account execs and writers develop the concept, then hand it off to the art department which is responsible for bringing it to life without any creative input. Again: top-down, hierarchical. DDB pioneered what became known as the ‘creative revolution’, where project teams including an art director and writer would brainstorm together to develop the idea, effectively forcing a synergistic relationship between word and image.

My favorite DDB campaign is one they did for Levy’s, an account they had held for several years without highlighting the ethnic angle until this poster appeared in subways in 1961:

Update: for serious type nerds, reader MM passes on this typo analysis of Mad Men from Mark Simonson’s blog.

9 thoughts on “Mad Men and Doyle Dane Bernbach”

  1. You are so lucky. I wish I could erase them all from my memory just so I could start again.

    Have you gotten to the Kodak Carousel pitch yet? It’s maybe one of the best scenes that’s ever been on television. I’ve watched it 20 or 30 times on YouTube.

  2. Yeah, I have the same envious feeling whenever I encounter someone who hasn’t watched all 5 seasons of the Wire multiple times.

    By the way, that link you posted to NPR interview about Japanese organized crime a while back was absurdly entertaining– thanks.

  3. Hey, good timing, I JUST finished the first season last night. My wife really got annoyed at the one episode we saw in 2007, but since DVDing she has stopped being mad at me about 1960.

    The Carousel was awesome. Peggie’s last scene defied belief though (will be purposefully vague for Dan’s benefit until we get the all-clear).

  4. You’ll see that the question of gender and advertising becomes increasingly important in the show too. Peggy’s promotion in the agency corresponds to a dawning recognition that maybe 50 year old dudes don’t always know the best way to sell deoderant or Tampax to women.

    Final episode of this season left me suddenly feeling that it could easily go several more years, no problem, as they really enter “the 60s”

  5. Wonderful blog. So interesting to read this now – at about 2 years after you wrote it and I am on episode 4. I loved seeing the DDB VW ad – I was born in 70 and my dad was part of the creative team that did this ad. I remember seeing it framed in his office when I would go into work with him. It’s stuff like this that made me fall in love with advertising. Funny too – I remember his secretary taking our coats and hanging them up just like Peggy does in the episode. I can’t wait to watch more episodes – it’s like re-living my youth!

  6. My mother, Carole Langer, and my stepfather, Andrew Langer, both worked at DDB in the Golden Age. i was a egular fixture there, playing on the floor with my Corgi Toys and Fischer-Techniks!

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