Where does Mad Men leave brands and authenticity?

Almost a year has passed since arguably one of the best drama series in history, Mad Men, took its last breath. The show became famous for its witty screenplays, complex characters, and its meticulously researched approach to the swinging advertising world of the 1960s. Less talked about, but just as interesting, are the occasions where the show makes possibly subliminal references to the contemporary world of marketing communications. What sort of cultural significance is hidden away in the show’s final climax when viewed in the context of brands and authenticity? A word of warning: the following includes spoilers.

For someone like me, professionally caught in the maelstrom of conversations related to marketing and corporate communications, it’s nearly impossible to look at certain scenes in Mad Men without ending up with all kinds of interpretations.

A good example is the final season’s storyline that follows the talented copywriter Michael Ginsberg. His mental breakdown seems to stem, at least in part, from the looming presence of the room-sized IBM computer that his agency had recently acquired. This comes across like a sarcastic nod to the raging discourse currently underway about creativity versus data in marketing communications.

Another case, and one of the most interesting points of departure for this type of analysis, is the closing sequence of the series. In the second to last scene the lead character, Don Draper, participates in a group meditation atop the cliffs of California’s idyllic Big Sur. The passing smile on Don’s face, hinting at some level of enlightenment, is followed by the iconic Coca-Cola commercial, known as “Hilltop”. Essential viewing, due to its perfection of classical advertising style, “Hilltop” features a sufficiently heterogeneous bunch of young people standing on a green ocean-side pasture singing the praises of the unifying force of Coke.

The considerable ambiguity of the ending has even inspired several alternative versions. Nevertheless, both the series creator Matthew Weiner and lead actor Jon Hamm have claimed that there is a correct interpretation to be gleaned from the sequence. In this scenario, Don wakes up the next morning, and instead of going further along his spiritual path, makes a glorious return to the world of advertising. There he mines his meditational moment of clarity to create “Hilltop”.

The real thing?

Matthew Weiner discourages us from seeing the finale in a cynical light, but many commentators have rightly expressed a critical view of the offered explanation. Even if the claims of the show’s creators ring true in the fictional realm, it is still a prime example of cultural appropriation in advertising.

During meditation, Don realizes his true identity as an adman, and that the message of spiritual unity inherent in the counterculture of the 1960s, and its new age aesthetic, could also be used as a vehicle to sell soda. The message might be sincere, and in the middle of the Cold War and the hopelessness of the dawning 1970s one could do worse than sing a song of love and unity: give us dreams of a better tomorrow instead of gnawing fears for what the future may hold.

How would the most important marketing segment for B2C brands at the moment, Millennials, react to a commercial which so openly places us in a choir of spiritual unity while planting the product in our hand?

According to the 2015 survey by McCarthy Group, probably not well: 84% of participating Millennials say they don’t even like advertising. This information is correlated by the fact that the use of adblock applications grew 41% globally in the past year.

“Hilltop” is naturally a product of its time, and a hugely successful achievement as such, but this does not exempt it from questions of cultural authenticity and appropriation. These subjects were probably as relevant then as they are now, even if there was no social media to instantly damn or praise the content in the manner of today. From a contemporary perspective the payoff, “The Real Thing”, clashes with the reality that lies behind the artifice, carefully crafted by advertising creatives, lip-syncing actors and camera crews.

As a result, “Hilltop” does not leave a very authentic impression. The cast of singers, drawn from schools, youth hostels and embassies around Italy, are performing as generic indicators for race, gender and nationality, not as individuals. Even if they were performing as themselves in their natural wardrobe of the time, they are not speaking their own minds. Essentially they are channeling the power of the brand clutched in their hand.

What is real then?

It seems that instead of repeated marketing messages, no matter how clever or emotive they are, people would rather have real actions, real conversations, and real people stepping out from behind and, even better, from outside the brand. In the case of popular vloggers, bloggers and professional Instagrammers the need for brands to create personalities to convey their message is eliminated completely.

At the moment, effective creative ads rely on a very different approach than “Hilltop” and usually have some kind of an authenticating element. Take “Your Father” by Campbell’s Soup which makes itself relevant by promoting social equality. This rehash of the father of all memes from Star Wars is spiced up by its subtext of normalizing same-sex parenting. The two fathers can be easily imagined as a real couple.

The same goes for the popular Volvo Trucks ads: “Look Who’s Driving” would be just another boring display of machismo if it had been executed by a male model instead of the 100% authentic and adorable 4-year-old Sophie.

“Your Future Is Not Mine”, by adidas Originals, comes unexpectedly close to being a contemporary version of “Hilltop”. Both ads feature youth embracing a brand; as creative achievements both leave lasting impressions; both are indelibly linked to their respective eras. Something has definitely changed in the latter commercial though.

The young men and women in “Your Future Is Not Mine”, trudging through a disturbingly familiar dystopia of selfie sticks, chemical spraying and superficiality, are not just some young models cast to look good in adidas. Instead, they are creative professionals, athletes and actors that you’ve probably never heard of – at least I haven’t.

These people are real, and they look as if they will wear the brand in their own fashion, while paving their own future. We are left looking at their anonymous backs, enticing us to follow. This is not appropriating: it is inspiring.


Markus Karlqvist is a copywriter, creative planner and dj, who pinballs daily between corporate and marketing communications. His background is in marginal culture journalism, advertising, radio and communications work in organizations such as the European Space Agency. He thinks that everything is moving too fast right now.

Twitter: @markuskarlqvist