Me, Don and the Super Bowl.

January 31st, 2018


As many of us in the ad business, I’m a fan of the AMC series “Mad Men” and eagerly followed the exploits of creative director and bad boy Don Draper. (I even have the special edition cigarette lighter case DVD set.)

And like many of my cohorts, I anxiously look forward to the commercials during the Super Bowl. Or I used to. But more and more, I expect to be disappointed with what I see.

That got me to thinking, what would Don Draper think of Super Bowl advertising? Sitting next to me in a mid-century modern armchair, an old fashioned in hand, we’d harrumph at the self-indulgent, incomprehensible dreck that passes for a contemporary high-profile TV commercial. We’d clink glasses and shake our heads as we watch another $5 million pissed away every 30 seconds. Freddy Rumsen would be proud.

While I can’t condone his relentless womanizing, inveterate day-drinking, and general douchebaggery, I admire his commitment to the craft of advertising. It’s an art form (business art, but art nonetheless) that is under siege. The barbarians are at the gates, and Don and I are holding steadfast.

Why do I think that Don and I, two creative directors from vastly different eras, would enjoy watching the game together? Let me count the ways:

Leaking your Super Bowl ad before the game ought to be a crime.

Don would despise the practice of previewing the commercials online before the game. As he famously said, “The most important idea in advertising is ‘new.’ New creates an itch.” The opposite of new is “seen it.” Why ruin the wonder and discovery of your new, groundbreaking commercial by letting everybody see it early, without context? It’s like knowing what all your birthday presents are before they’re opened. If you want your ad to have impact, let your audience discover it together.

Committees, focus groups and ad testing foster mediocrity.

Next, we’d bond over what we see as the root cause of so much bad advertising during the game. When the stakes are so high, and the world is watching, advertisers stop relying on brilliant insights and throw their work into committees and focus groups. Everybody wants to get involved. This same groupthink almost led to the scuttling of the all-time best Super Bowl ad, Apple’s “1984.”

“Former Apple ad account manager Fred Goldberg reveals that when he sent Apple’s now famous “1984” ad to be tested by the leading market research company of the day, he was told it would be one of the least effective commercials the firm had ever tested.” (Source: Business Insider)

It’s counter-productive (and counter-intuitive to those not on the creative side of the business), but the most powerful ads rarely test well – because they are unexpected and unfamiliar, and often the result of a blinding flash of insight. Don threw the Lucky Strike research in the trash can, relied on his own gut, and saved the account.

Everyone thinks they’re creative.

Want to really annoy someone who’s devoted their career to crafting intelligent, nuanced advertising? Tell them how much you like user-generated ads. Don would pour another drink and rant about the time he tried to fire that weasel Pete Campbell for pitching his own ideas to Bethlehem Steel. “I told him, ‘get a cardboard box. Then put your things in it.’ He almost wet his pants like Freddy.”

The problem with random people creating random ads is that while sometimes they can stumble across a humorous idea, it’s rarely on strategy or on brand. Unless your brand is to careen from one wacky gag to another with no regard for the bigger business challenge. It’s like me playing golf – occasionally, I get lucky and hit a great shot, but I have no business thinking I’m a pro.

Humor that isn’t funny.

It’s not that Don and I don’t like humor. He’s clearly evolved on that front. When first confronted with the iconic Volkswagen “Lemon” ad, he says “I don’t know what I hate more – the ad or the car.” He later evolves his thinking, commenting, “Love it or hate it, the fact is, we’ve been talking about it for the last 15 minutes.”

We’d agree that VW’s “Darth Vader” ad from a few years ago was pretty good. And after watching him get obnoxiously drunk when he won a Clio, we know that he loves awards. It’s just that slapstick, frat-boy humor pales in comparison to subtle wit. Respect your audience’s intelligence and they’ll come along for the ride. But pratfalls, cute dogs and celebrities test well in focus groups and the USA Today Ad Meter.

$1.4 billion reasons to watch.

The reality is, Don’s not here to see this. And despite the train wrecks I know I’ll witness, I’ll still watch the game, hanging on every commercial break. This year, an estimated $1.4 billion will be spent on media alone for the game, not to mention the millions in production costs. There was nothing like that in the Mad Men era, and in today’s fractured media environment, there’s still nothing else like it. Like it or hate it, there’s no other place to reach such a mass audience in one big shot. And I will still watch the game, hoping to witness that one spot that makes me say, “I wish I’d done that.”

That’s where Don and I would differ. I can’t remember ever hearing him express admiration for anyone else’s talent. Me, I’m jealous every year.

And that’s a good thing.