It’s time to talk about Mad Men.
After all, how can I write about stories and advertising without mentioning one of the most famous stories about advertising?
I know, I know. Hard-nosed direct response marketers often have less than flattering things to say about Madison Avenue advertising methods.
No accountability. Entertainment but no sales. Limp, milk-toast mass appeal that elicits a tepid response … instead of the cash-geyser returns of laser-targeted direct response.
But it should be remembered that one of our bibles in DR – Eugene Schwarz’s Breakthrough Advertising – spends an entire chapter on “Identification”, using examples primarily from image-driven Madison Avenue national campaigns.
I fear I just set off a firestorm of debate.
But before the comments section is set ablaze, I want to highlight one story told in one episode – to be exact, the last episode of Season 6. (Last one I’ve seen – I’m a Netflix watcher – so please, no spoilers in the comment section. Yeah, I’m gonna spill the beans on this episode in just a moment, but it’s my bleedin’ article, okay?)
First, I’m sure most of you know the premise of the show: Don Draper, mister cool, secretly living a lie … displaying a persona to the world that masks the reality beneath.
In a nutshell: Don’s life is one big Hype. (Hmmm …. subtext, anyone?)
But the pressure is getting to Mr. Draper in this 6th season, and his façade has steadily been cracking. It culminates in this last episode when he’s pitching to Hershey executives who are preparing to engage in national advertising for the first time.
(Watch here for a refresher or if you haven’t seen it. And yes, *SPOILERS* below.)
Don’s first pitch to the two men from Pennsylvania leverages story big time.
When he was a boy, he tells them, his dad would reward him for mowing the lawn. His dad would take him to the store to pick out any treat he wanted.
And Don always picked out a Hershey bar.
It is a good story, bringing us back to our own moments enjoying a Hershey bar.
(For me, a Hershey bar means S’mores. Not just me – my local QFC conveniently displays Hershey bars on an endcap alongside graham crackers and marshmallows every summer.)
But Don’s story is a complete fabrication.
And, because he’s at a crisis moment, Don’s smooth façade starts to crack.
Visibly struggling with emotion, Don stops the meeting cold by telling the Hershey execs that he needs to tell them something, because he might not see them again.
He feels compelled to tell this story — the real story of his childhood connection with Hershey bars.
Don was an orphan, raised in a whorehouse.
And he heard of the Hershey orphanage school. Dreamed of living there.
The woman taking care of him just wanted him to disappear.
But there was one working girl who paid him genuine attention. She enlisted Don to go through her john’s pocket while they transacted business. If Don found more than a dollar, the hooker would buy him a Hershey’s bar.
Then he’d eat it alone in his room, “with great ceremony.”
“It was the only sweet thing in my life,” he says, almost breaking down in tears.
Don’s story thuds into that ritzy boardroom like a hail storm of anvils. It’s authentic. It’s raw.
And it’s full blown career suicide for the agency man.
The potential clients from Hershey look uncomfortable and confused.
“You want us to advertise this?” one asks, aghast.
Don shakes his head.
“If I had my way, you would never advertise.
“You shouldn’t have someone like me telling that boy what a Hershey bar is.
“He already knows.”
Now, leaving the question of “is advertising always a good idea” aside, there’s a lesson in this second tale.
Because Don has just brushed his hand against the wild current of authenticity.
True, the jolt stings – he’s escorted from the agency’s doors pronto. Services no longer required, thanks anyway.
But he also tapped into a power source that can electrify the hearts of millions.
I wrote a few weeks back about letting your emotions guide you to the right story. When you cry at something in your research, it’s a good chance your prospects will feel the same way when they read it.
This is one of those stories.
And his story needs to be told for him to get his point across. Don’s love for the sweet treat can only be understood in the context of his bitter childhood. Only then does his moment of bliss with the chocolate bar take on poignancy and emotional weight.
Now, I guess that a story about a kid enjoying a Hershey’s bar … as a reward for nicking dimes and dollars off of a dude in a whorehouse … might not be the best way to sell a product, especially in the 1960s.
But the authenticity of the story is undeniable. It sticks with you. It’s full of pain and it invites empathy.
True, we may not always feel comfortable exposing all our gory details to our public.
And we may not have the liberty to do so (like when we’re talking about family members or customers who are reluctant to share the spotlight.)
But there are elements that can be saved.
In our fictional case, Don was an orphan. He did hear about the orphans supported at Hershey and dream of attending their school. And eating a Hershey bar was the sweetest part of his miserable life.
The story about a reward after a lawn mowing might twitch a smile, but this story threatens to release the waterworks (and quite possibly, a rain of silver and gold). The emotion is much stronger, but it’s still positive, because the Hershey bar was a bright light in the darkness.
An edgy story might get you canned … but it might also be the one that makes your business. Find the story that someone is compelled to tell – might be from you, might be from a customer. Then shape it. Whittle down the parts that don’t fit the time and place of the telling.
Stay Tuned For Next Week …
In which a children’s book teaches me how to sell