When Mad Men made its series debut in the summer of 2007, viewers were immediately hooked into the bold, vivacious world of advertising. Don Draper might have been fictional, but the reality was that art imitated life in the ad industry. Behind closed doors on Madison Avenue was a powerhouse of agencies where talented men and women reinvented the industry, creating some of the memorable ads ever over martini lunches and smoky photo shoots. Mad Men may have ended its run in 2015, but the Smithsonian Channel is playing homage to advertising’s formative years with The Real Mad Men of Advertising.
Premiering January 8th, the four-part miniseries takes a closer look at the ad men and women who revolutionized brands through the 1950s – 1980s, featuring interviews with top ad creators of the 1950s, Mad Men cast and crew members, and supermodel Brooke Shields reflecting on her controversial 1980s Calvin Klein ad campaign. We recently chatted with Tim Evans, Co-Executive Producer at the Smithsonian Channel for The Real Mad Men of Advertising, who shared what it was like to work with Matthew Weiner, the “golden age” of advertising, and why the miniseries doesn’t have a 1990s segment.
What inspired the team at Smithsonian to create an advertising miniseries after Mad Men had gone off the air?
Just after the finale, Matt Weiner and AMC donated props and costumes to the Smithsonian’s collection at the National Museum of American History. The donation made it clear that the series is not just a television show about an historic period; the series itself is significant because of its commentary and reflection on history. We took this as a jumping off place: What does this hit series reveal about the history of advertising, and what does that history tell us about ourselves?
If Mad Men hadn't been such a success, would the history and cultural significance of advertising be as widely discussed in the media as it is today?
The cultural significance of advertising is extremely important, but it’s such a part of the world around us that we often don’t pay much attention. Much of the media actually IS advertising, so it often seems invisible. It took Mad Men to point out the impact Madison Avenue had on 1960s America. Our series The Real Mad Men of Advertising uses the lens of Mad Men to look beyond that – to explore advertising from the 1950s through the 1980s – where I’d like to think that Don Draper would have become a grizzled ad world survivor.
What will the miniseries highlight from “the golden age” of advertising?
We interview many of the real ad men and women who created the classic ads of the 1950s through the 1980s. These are the real Don Drapers and Peggy Olsons, and their stories are fascinating. We also include the great commercials themselves. People who actually remember these commercials might find them nostalgic and others might find them a little freaky. It’s sometimes hard to believe what was allowed on the air!
There are actually two levels when we’re talking about “Advertising’s Golden Age” – the world of the ad industry, and the ads themselves. The Golden Age of the ad industry was rife with sexism, racism, harassment, and fraud… All the things that made Mad Men such compelling TV. But the ads themselves also reflected those values – and you can see those values changing in the actual commercials. The casual sexism of 1960s commercials changes by the 1970s, when women become a coveted target demographic, and changes even more in the 1980s when women are running ad agencies. The ads are a time capsule, and they are sometimes funny and sometimes horrifying, because they reflect our values during that period.
John Slattery, Matthew Weiner, and Brooke Shields are some of the big names in advertising that appear in the miniseries. What was it like to work alongside these professionals?
Each of them was a pleasure to work with, in their own ways. Matt Weiner insists that he’s not an expert in the history of advertising, but he knows an extraordinary amount and shared some fascinating insights and information, and Brooke Shields was incredibly funny and willing to talk about her reaction as a teenager to her infamous ads.
Was there any specific reason for not including a 1990s segment?
We could have taken the series up to today or even back to the Roman Empire, because advertising is a truly compelling story. However, the “Mad Men Era” of the 60s and 70s is considered Advertising’s Golden Age, so we wanted to start with the precursors of Don Draper in the 1950s. And we wanted to end with the 80s – when MTV and infomercials blurred the distinction between TV and commercials, and advertising had changed forever. It would be interesting to follow up with a look at the transformations of online and mobile advertising.
Which brands throughout the decades consistently nail it with their ad campaigns?
When you delve into the research, you discover that the “brands” often had nothing to do with the campaigns. The campaigns were invented by the people we interviewed: men like Lee Clow – who created the iconic “1984” ad for Apple’s Macintosh – or women like Jane Maas – who wrote Clairol’s famous “Does She Or Doesn’t She” catchphrase. Mad Men focused a fictional eye on these people, but we hope our series reveals the men and women who had this massive but secret impact on every aspect of American culture.
Let’s talk about the future of advertising in an era of selfies, Snaps, and hashtags. Will there be a return to form or are we headed towards a much brighter future?
One of the revelations of The Real Mad Men of Advertising is that good ads are the result of creativity… And pretty much nothing else. As the ad industry grew from the post-war era to the edge of the millennium, all sorts of new technology emerged – from radio to cable to the web to mobile. Each new technology had a bunch of new marketing theories, but the ads that made a difference – both to their product and to culture at large – were pure creativity. They were a Big Idea, or a funny riff, or a smart tweak to a widely accepted concept. And they came from smart people who embraced creativity. I think creativity will remain the most important element for advertising, no matter what the media or technology.
Adjust the antennae cords on your TV and tune in to The Real Mad Men of Advertising premiering Sunday, January 8th at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the Smithsonian Channel.
Image credits: Smithsonian Channel