Brian Mackey: Finding a deeper meaning in advertising

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Thursday, December 1, 2011 | Brian Mackey | Categories:
Perhaps I’m just going through “Mad Men” withdrawal, but I swear I saw the influence of Don Draper last week in The New York Times. On the Black Friday shopping holiday (?), the clothing retailer Patagonia took out a full-page ad with an image of one of its products under the headline “DON’T BUY THIS JACKET.” “It’s Black Friday, the day in the year retail turns from red to black and starts to make real money,” the ad copy said. “But Black Friday, and the culture of consumption it reflects, puts the economy of natural systems that support all life firmly in the red.” The ad went on to tout the company’s Common Threads Initiative, in which Patagonia pledges to be more responsible in how it designs and manufactures its products if customers agree to be more responsible in buying, using and disposing of same. “WE make useful gear that lasts a long time,” the ad states. “YOU don’t buy what you don’t need.” The company also pledges to help customers repair broken Patagonia gear and to take it back when customers are ready to recycle it. Why would a company pay for some of the most expensive real estate in advertising in order to urge customers to not buy its products? It was certainly an attention-getting stunt. And that’s what made me think of Don Draper. Toward the end of the last season of “Mad Men,” way back in 2010, the firm of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce lost one of its biggest clients, Lucky Strike Cigarettes. Desperate, Draper takes unilateral action, running a full-page ad in The New York Times. (Sound familiar?) “Why I’m quitting tobacco,” Draper’s ad began. “For over 25 years, we devoted ourselves to peddling a product for which good work is irrelevant, because people can’t stop themselves from buying it. A product that never improves, that causes illness, and makes people unhappy,” Draper wrote. “But there was money in it. A lot of money. In fact, our entire business depended on it. We knew it wasn’t good for us, but we couldn’t stop.” Draper was changing the conversation — they didn’t dump us, we dumped them, as Draper’s secretary astutely observed. But some fans of the character — myself included — think he was expressing a deeper truth. On Black Friday, we heard the usual news reports of tragedy around the margins of the buying frenzy: Someone deploys pepper spray to beat other customers to a deal at Wal-Mart. Someone else is robbed in a parking lot. A man dies in Target, and people continued shopping, walking over his body, according to the New York Daily News. Draper’s ad was a stand-up-and-cheer moment for fans of the show. A rare triumph in a relatively down period for the character. People were ready to hear something bold, and Draper came through. Which is precisely what made Patagonia’s ad so compelling. By opening late Thursday evening, corporate America is encroaching on the national holiday of Thanksgiving. We knew it wasn’t good for us, but we couldn’t stop. For those of us made queasy by the excesses of Black Friday, the idea of someone standing up and saying “enough” is a message we were primed to hear. AnchorJon Hamm, the actor who portrays Draper, has said Season 5 of “Mad Men” is set to return in 2012. That means fans of the show will have been without new episodes for nearly two years. Forgive us if we keep seeing signs of Draper in everyday life.
The Steuben Courier
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