Jump to Main ContentJump to Primary Navigation

The real Mad Men ads


With Mad Men storming onto our screens for season five this spring, we find ourselves once again immersed in the universe of Don Draper and co. - and their never-ending penchant for creative flair.

But that wonderful world of whiskeys and cigars at lunchtime and frenzied pitches for a must-have airline/cigarette brand is not merely the stuff of fiction. Back in ad land's golden era, Madison Avenue was heaving with verve and innovation, as agencies vied to outdo each other with visionary thinking and that killer tag line.

Here Andrew Cracknell, author of The Real Mad Men, introduces us to six ground-breaking ads from the Mad Men era of 1950s and 60s New York, when a handful of renegades changed advertising forever...

Andrew Cracknell's The Real Mad Men: The Remarkable True Story of Madison Avenue’s Golden Age is available to purchase now (Quercus, £14.99)

Photos courtesy of Elwin Street Productions © 2011 The Real Mad

1. Wolfschmidt’s Vodka – Tomato

Much alcohol advertising is conducted with social aspiration at its core; because it's essentially a gregarious product, you need to be suggesting "good times", whether on an oligarch's yacht or in a convivial barroom (to my view both so tiresome and yet both still so prevalent). The beauty of the Papert Koenig Lois campaign for Wolfschmidt's was an understanding that slavish "monkey see, monkey do" advertising was not the only way to go. Style can be evoked as much by how you think, what you find funny and what speaks to you possibly more than simply shoving aspirational images in front of people and expecting them to respond. "Wolfschmidt's in a Bloody Mary is a tomato in triumph". Perfect.

2. Ohrbach’s – I found out about Joan!

For me, one of the hallmarks of Doyle Dane Bernbach's advertising was playfulness. They recognised that the reader knew this was all part of the process of selling and there was no point in pretending anything else. So without undermining the overall purpose - persuasion - they made their ads as entertaining as possible. Written in 1959 for the cut price store by Judy Protas, one of the many women writers at DDB, the copy is a wittily knowing stream of catty gossip about Joan who behind her expensive high fashion exterior hides a terrible secret; as we learn in the last line of copy "I just happened to be going her way and I saw Joan come out of Ohrbach's!"

3. Ohrbach’s - Liberal Trade-In

Although it ran in 1952 long before the famed VW "Think Small" campaign, this is the ad that is generally assumed to mark the start of the Creative Revolution. While objectionable to today's gender sensibilities, it was a sensation. Nathan Orbach was Bill Bernbach's first client at Doyle Dane Bernbach, a far seeing benefactor who had worked with Bernbach at his previous agency, Grey, and urged him to start his own place. Department stores didn't talk like this, their ads either a riot of offers or breathlessly reverential. But for this DDB borrowed from the language of another genre of heavy handed advertising, auto dealerships, and parodied their style to the huge enjoyment of the public. Maybe you had to be there but believe me, they loved it.

4. Wolfshmidt’s Vodka – Orange

PKL was a belligerent agency with plenty of internal strife, and dubbed Stillman's East after a famous westside boxing gym, Stillman's West. When this ad ran into trouble with various newspapers who refused to run it - too risqué, can you believe it? - the agency loved it. Controversy with the press was all good grist for the publicity mill and helped establish Wolfschmidt's as an alternative choice. This frivolous but congenial approach was like a douche of iced vodka after years of ads featuring tuxedoed stiffs and overdressed dames in Connecticut country clubs or upper East side apartments. Jewish writer, Greek art director - like so much of the Creative Revolution work, the irreverent approach of the second and third generation immigrants.

5. VW – Think Small

The most famous ad in history, partly because it was so breathtakingly different. Car ads were usually illustrated rather than photographed, so the picture could and frequently did, lie. Aspiration was almost always the only hook; naked, blatant, social superiority. And cars were big, blowsy, objects of desire, almost sexual. And what was DDB's response to the task, characterised at the time by one of their staff as "selling a Nazi car in a Jewish town"? Show the car small, unadorned with status signifying props and describe it as the one thing that American didn't want to hear - small! Detroit was aghast but within weeks the public were actually quoting the wittily crafted copy by Julian Koenig.

6. VW – Lemon

Mad Men's Don Draper says of this ad "I don't know what I hate about it most - the ad or the car". He was not alone. Most of Madison Avenue couldn't believe what they were seeing. But here you see all the principles of Bernbach's advertising; intelligence, respect for the reader, candour, wit, charm and originality. There was also a high degree of self deprecatory irreverence, as DDB recognised that the view clients' held of the overblown importance of their products was unrealised in the real world. "Lemon" indicates a problem with the car, an utter heresy in the litany of Detroit advertising. There was - a blemish on the glove compartment, which is why "This VW missed the boat."



Mad Men's new star


Peggy Olson: Feminist Icon


Muppet Mad Men



The cheap wine hack that could save you bundles of cash

This will make your cheap red plonk taste like a premium vintage

by Kayleigh Dray
23 Jan 2017

Got a dark sense of humour? You're probably a genius

Gallows humour ain’t all bad

by Kayleigh Dray
23 Jan 2017

Women’s March: the inspiring and badass signs, banners, and placards

“I am woman, hear me roar”

by Kayleigh Dray
23 Jan 2017

Spice Girls’ Geri Halliwell reveals baby boy’s poignant name

And it's a sweet tribute to her late best friend, George Michael

by Kayleigh Dray
23 Jan 2017

Serena Williams had the best response for reporter who criticised her

"Are you serious?"

by Sarah Biddlecombe
20 Jan 2017

Married at First Sight’s Caroline reveals truth about marriage to Adam

Steel yourselves, romantics

by Kayleigh Dray
20 Jan 2017

Listen to A-listers narrate the history of Planned Parenthood

“No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body”

by Sarah Biddlecombe
19 Jan 2017

Wife Swap set to return with one-off Brexit special

What happens when a Remain voter finds herself living in a family of Brexit fans?

by Kayleigh Dray
19 Jan 2017

The 2017 Feminist Calendar: celebrate the sisterhood all year round

The future is female

by The Stylist web team
19 Jan 2017

Unicorn lattes are the new brunch trend taking over your Instagram

These healing concoctions are almost too pretty to drink

by Kayleigh Dray
19 Jan 2017