Everything I know about copywriting I learned from Don Draper.
Okay, that's not true. Don Draper is a fictional character, the protagonist of Mad Men, that AMC show set in the early-'60s advertising world that just won Emmys for Best Series, Drama, and Best Writing, Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special, among other categories (believe the hype). Still, Sterling Cooper creative director Don Draper has reinforced for me the cornerstone of effective branding: the emotional connection between the product and the consumer. Whatever bells and whistles you've mustered, if you don't bind with that tie, game over.
Per Newsweek ("A Word From Our Sponsor," Aug. 4): "In one of the signature scenes from the first 'Mad Men' season, Kodak is looking for a campaign for its new slide-projector 'wheel.' It wants to focus on the technology, but the head of creative understands that advertising has become about making an emotional connection with consumers. In the pitch meeting, he loads the wheel — which he's romantically renamed the 'carousel' — with pictures of his wife and kids, essentially selling his family to win the account."
As this is one of the most extraordinary scenes ever broadcast on television, allow me to elaborate. Draper says:
"Technology is a glittering lure. But there is the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash if they have a sentimental bond with the product. My first job, I was in house at a fur company. This old-pro copywriter, Greek, named Teddy ... Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising is 'new.' It creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of Calamine Lotion. We also talked about a deeper bond with the product — nostalgia. It's delicate but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, nostalgia literally means 'the pain from an old wound.' It's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn't a spaceship; it's a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called 'the wheel'; it's called 'the carousel.' 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."
Needless to say, our hero lands the account.
The scene is particularly rich and layered, silently commenting on an array of relationships — as well as the disparity between Madison Avenue (the "Mad" of the show's title) fantasies and messy old life.
Draper is reminding us that making an indelible impression on the consumer requires empathetic creativity.But it's also an object lesson in advertising greatness. Draper is reminding us that making an indelible impression on the consumer (rather than merely putting lotion on the "itch" of novelty) requires empathetic creativity. We must set aside our static vision of an undifferentiated mass-with-disposable-income and become the audience. We can't expect to connect emotionally unless our own feelings are engaged. Like an actor or a novelist, the copywriter should draw upon personal experience to breathe life into the story he tells.
In a subsequent episode, in which the creative team is contriving a new airline campaign, Draper posits: "It's about adventure Ö You want to get on a plane to feel alive. You want to get on a plane to see just the hint of a woman's thigh because her skirt is just this much too short." Which prompts Peggy, a copywriter, to remark, "Sex sells." "Says who?" Draper snaps. "Just so you know, the people who talk that way think that monkeys can do this. They take all this monkey crap and just stick it in a briefcase completely unaware that their success depends on something more than their shoeshine. You are the product. You feeling something — that's what sells. Not them. Not sex."
Once again, Draper invites us to conjure an emotional state. In this case, rather than a nostalgic yearning for domestic bliss, he describes its obverse: wanderlust, the yen to cast aside one's responsibilities and leap into new experience. The struggle between these opposing impulses defines Don Draper, and his genius resides in his ability to fuel his campaigns with them.
Whatever the emotion tapped, it may come as a surprise when a major brand manages to wring a tribute from our tear ducts. That advertisers succeed in this is especially impressive given our modern skepticism about being manipulated by advertising.
I'm reminded of those Cliff Robertson-voiced AT&T "Reach Out" commercials from the '80s. The one of the mother returning to the work force getting a pep talk from her daughter — "Mom, everything you've touched so far turned out pretty well." The one of the young woman learning to play the violin with feeling — "Just let the joy in you come out." Watching them on YouTube now, I still feel a twinge in my heart. And guess what? I've got three land lines and two cell accounts with AT&T and I suspect there's some bundling in my future. Even if the twinge doesn't send you scrambling for your wallet, a seed is planted. Nurturing that seed is the quintessence of branding.
I recently attended a Screen Actors Guild Foundation screening of a forthcoming episode of Mad Men, followed by a panel discussion with the cast. A member of the audience asked the assembled actors why they thought a show set in the early '60s has struck such a resounding chord with contemporary viewers. Jon Hamm, who plays Don Draper (and has been rewarded with a Golden Globe for his efforts), demonstrated his understanding of the period by thoughtfully laying out some of the socio-political challenges facing Americans during that time, then drew parallels with the challenges facing Americans during this time. It was a sobering moment.
I took some comfort thinking that, in advertising at least, despite all the advances in flash, it's a good thing that some things remain unchanged: "You feeling something — that's what sells."