Miss ‘Mad Men’? Relive the Nostalgia with These 1960’s Ads


After watching Mad Men, your office life was probably pretty droll in comparison. You don’t have a liquor cabinet behind your desk. You might not have a secretary at your beck and call. And you’re certainly not Don Draper (nobody can be Don Draper, not even Pete Campbell, am I right?).

Mad Men was a show unlike any other. One part soap opera, one part historical recreation, once it grabbed your mind (and heart) it wouldn’t let go. But what made Mad Men unique in my estimation was its ability to instill nostalgia for an era most people watching the show never experienced.

The 60’s was a unique time in history that penned an indelible mark on our collective memory. We can blame much of the rapid political and cultural changes of the sixties for this. And today we’re going to learn how to plug into that same nostalgia.

1. If You Don’t Like What’s Being Said, Change the Conversation

There is one thing we certainly learned from Mad Men. Marketing changed during the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. While the ad market slowed in the 50’s, it garnered a creative revolution.

Suddenly humor, irony, and a shade of irreverence were allowed in marketing. This was an effort to connect with younger consumers. Advertisers were also attempting to overcome a distrust of corporate messages (sound familiar?).

It’s no coincidence that we see large corporations like Coca-cola featured heavily in Mad Men. These were the corporations trying to bolster their brands at a time when large brands were being maligned and anti-establishmentarianism was at an all-time high.

Social activism also began to work its way into the ads of the time. And we can see this clearly in every Mad Men era starting with the campaign against cigarettes.

The US census is the last thing that changed the marketing world for good. Through the 1960 census, marketers suddenly had segmented research at their fingertips. Lifestyles were included in this data and marketers were able to target specific demographics through image campaigns.

Throughout it all, some epic campaigns went down. Let’s look at some of the most iconic campaigns of the 60’s for some inspiration.

2. Think Small

Volkswagen had a problem in the 50’s and 60’s. It was a car company founded by the Third Reich during WW2 and its cars weren’t very pretty. They were small, ugly, and cheap.

None of these facts compete well against the popular USA-made cars rolling out of Detroit at the time. And yet Volkswagen wanted a market share in the U.S. This was a job for the (M)ad men.

What sold the Volkswagen to the American public wasn’t a flashy ad. It was honesty. And Carl Hahn, Volkswagen’s point man in America, chose Bernbach at DDB due to his apparent advertorial honesty.

And the ad that changed advertsing was brutally honest about the Volkswagen Beetle. The tagline was simple. “Think Small.”

Using a minimalist design, Bernbach places a photo of the Volkswagen Beetle in the upper left quadrant at a slight angle as if it were far away and driving toward you. The car looked tiny on the empty white background.

It wasn’t just about the image. The type font was unique, san-serif Futura instead of a typical serif font. And the full-stop at the end of the title forced people to think about what they just read.

Lastly, the Volkswagen logo wasn’t in any typical “professionally placed” location. It sat intruding on the third paragraph like an elephant barging in on a crowd. And contemporary creative agencies recommend this technique even for web design.

Everything about the ad subverted audience expectations. Most car ads at the time appealed to the car’s ability to elevate your status. This ad eschewed this model and focused on the car’s ability to minimize the effect on your pocketbook just by being small in every way.

3. “It’s Toasted”

One iconic ad in the Mad Men series actually has a counterpart in the real world. In fact, many of the ads in Mad Men were inspired by real-life ads.

In the show, Lucky Strike was one of Sterling Cooper’s most important clients. The whole first episode is about the intrusion of campaigns against smoking and how Draper must find a way to distract people from the fact smoking was bad for you.

The men from Lucky Strike stand at the door ready to leave, Don Draper has a realization. He stops them. He asks at one point in the resulting pitch, “How do you make your cigarettes?”

The head man from Lucky Strike explains the process of planting and growing and toasting. Don stops him at “Toasted.” “It’s toasted,” he says and writes it on a chalkboard.

The men don’t get it. Don explains how advertising is happiness and it helps them understand something. If people focus on how Lucky Strike is “toasted,” unlike other tobaccos who don’t claim as much, they won’t focus on the fact it’s poisonous.

The real-life ad does something similar for Lucky Strike. In an era when you couldn’t lie about health benefits, you had to focus on taste or nostalgia.

The ad showed a man in a classic 60’s overcoat holding an overflowing stack of Lucky Strike carton boxes in his arms. Below it said, “Remember all your friends who remember how great cigarettes used to taste. This Christmas give cartons of Luckies.”

The nostalgia of “how great cigarettes used to taste” distracts the audience while subtly telling them that Lucky Strikes still taste just like that.

Change Your Perspective to Change the World

The Mad Men series is full of nods to the real world successes of marketers during the 60s and 70s. And the world in which they lived changed dramatically because of them.

If you’re wondering if your work won’t be remembered, think again. The most influential people are the ones who change their perspective and follow their passion.

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