Fantasy Versus Reality in AMC's 'Mad Men' Ad Campaigns

Mad Men on AMC logo on a wall.

Todd Williamson / Contributor / Getty Images

AMC's "Mad Men" is no longer on the air, but when it was, it was a powerhouse of creativity and inspired writing, bringing the sixties back to life with gusto. It hooked millions of viewers and showed them a side of the advertising world that most had never seen before, and that included the commercials.

Many of the "Mad Men" advertising campaigns used in the TV show featured actual ads that ran back in the day. Although the ads were real, they were often selling dreams, using fantasy to persuade people to buy their clients' products and services.

A current version of that technique is called "aspirational advertising." Aspirational advertising is a kind of marketing whose goal is to persuade you to improve your status by buying better brands. A bit less dodgy, but equally effective. If you think you're immune to such blatant mind games, ask yourself why you're longing for that BMW, Benz, or Lexus? A car is just a car.

Some of most the inventive, and yes, manipulative advertising that ever appeared ran during the '60s, changing the ad game forever. Here, we'll deconstruct some of the real-life ads that appeared in "Mad Men," the AMC TV series.

I Dreamt I Was a Knockout in My Maidenform Bra

Picture an attractive blond lady preening in a boxing ring, wearing only a bra, silver shorts, high heels, and boxing gloves.

What could be more Freudian? Sex. Strength. Independence. Dominance. Even today in the Lady Gaga, bare-all era, this ad still generates heat, but it was a bonfire when it appeared the February 3, 1961, issue of Life Magazine. Ms. Maidenform was a poster girl of that age's fulfillment fantasies and budding female empowerment movement. The campaign, launched in 1949, ranked 28th in Advertising Age's 100 most memorable ad campaigns. That it ran for more than twenty years speaks to its brilliance.

To Norman, Craig & Kunnel, the ad agency that created the campaign in 1949, congratulations on creating a piece of advertising history.

Kodak Introduces "the Carousel" the New Slide Projector

It's just a slide projector, right? No. Not even close. During one of the most memorable scenes of "Mad Men," Don Draper presents the idea for the product's name and ad campaign at a Kodak prospect pitch.

As images of his wife and kids appear, Draper tears up, perhaps recalling the better days of a failing marriage. His speech transforms the utilitarian projector into a dream machine:

It takes us to a place where we ache to go again ... It's called The Carousel. It lets us travel around and around and back home again.

The real ad for the Kodak Carousel was nowhere near as poetic, or enchanting. "Relax! The spillproof tray shows 80 slides, automatically!" was the functional headline they ran with. 

If You're Still Getting Wet, Start Getting Tough

In the 1960s, Right Guard was the manliest brand. During a brainstorming session, a Sterling Cooper writer suggested using an astronaut as a spokesperson. The heroic male icon is not breaking a sweat while hurtling into outer space. But Draper (and the real agency) had a better idea.

Sex sells, even subtly. The actual ad showed a woman's hand clutching a can of Right Guard aerosol spray, promising a tough solution to perspiration. The suggestion of a great love life trumps all, albeit through dry armpits. In reality, that's just the ad that ran.

Aside from the ads in the series, there were plenty of real-life Madison Avenue giants whose work changed the culture and made cash registers ring for their clients.

Here are three:

Bill Bernbach, the Creative Genius

Bill Bernbach was a pioneer, recognizing that consumers were humans, and wanted to be engaged versus hard sold. As a result, his ad agency, Doyle, Dane, Bernbach (DDB) put a premium on creativity and was the first to combine copywriters with art directors to brainstorm ideas. DDB was behind the campaign that revolutionized the way we look at foreign cars. Showing a tiny picture of a Volkswagen Beetle on a stark white page, the headline read: "Think Small."

Compared to American car branding, the counter-intuitive approach stood out and sold a ton of counter-culture VW's. DDB also made a lot of money for Avis, Life Cereal, and Polaroid. They were so good, and they're often mentioned in "Mad Men" as Sterling Cooper's competition.

Mary Wells, the First Female CEO of Advertising

In a Mad Man's game, Mary Wells succeeded spectacularly. Now in her 80s and still working as a consultant, Wells or her agency was responsible for an astonishing number of memorable taglines and creative concepts, including:

  • Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz for Alka Seltzer
  • I Love New York
  • Trust the Midas Touch
  • At Ford, Quality Is Job One
  • Flick your Bic
  • Raise Your Hand If You're Sure
  • Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk

One of the first women to become CEO of a publicly-traded company, Wells was the highest-paid ad exec of her day before selling her shop.

David Ogilvy, the Mad(ison Avenue) Scientist

No advertising discussion would be complete without mentioning David Ogilvy, labeled in a recent biography the "King of Madison Avenue." A Brit who conquered U.S. ad clients, what distinguished Ogilvy was his reliance on consumer research.

Part art, part science, Ogilvy's ads used long copy, filled with facts that he knew would engage potential customers. "I prefer the discipline of knowledge to the anarchy of ignorance," he said. So did his agency's many accounts, which have included Sears, Pepperidge Farm, the Government of Puerto Rico, and Schweppes.