In this week’s season finale of Mad Men, a Hershey’s pitch is the catalyst for the episode’s climax, in which Don Draper finds himself uncharacteristically unable to lie about his past. While the squeaky-clean executives of the late ’60s were turned off by his catharsis, the actual brand recently voiced their praise of the scene: “It was such a wonderful, organic moment that was actually very accurate about the company’s history, and it was able to tell the story of our brand and our founder, which made it so memorable.” Despite this (perhaps unintentional) synergy, Mad Men has never been about product placement, instead using ads to comment on the evolution of America in the 1960s. With that in mind, here are a few of the real-life brands that have played the biggest role in shaping Mad Men‘s plot.
Don Draper has been hidden in varying layers of secrecy since the show’s pilot, but we continue to see proof that his façade is cracking. The Hershey’s pitch is the strongest evidence yet, as Don, for once, can’t even manage to lie about his childhood to strangers. Don’s shady upbringing has been a big part of this season in particular, and a pitch about ideal American youth served as the perfect moment for him to unburden himself. The result may have been a complete failure, but the pitch would surely stay in the Hershey’s executives’ heads as they shopped around other agencies.
In Mad Men‘s pilot, Lucky Strike became the show’s first important brand in an episode that debates the dangers of smoking. It was a perfect way for Matthew Weiner to introduce audiences to a time of great tension in America, when some of the country’s most naïvely embraced traditions were being challenged for the first time. The pilot established Sterling Cooper’s support of antiquated values, desperate to protect tradition in any possible way. In his first big pitch, Don helps the tobacco industry keep America in denial with a perfect slogan: “It’s toasted.” Years later, Don will attempt to repent for this in a public break from the tobacco industry that combines social consciousness with business savvy.
Women of the early ’60s apparently had only two archetypes to choose from: Jackie and Marilyn. Sterling Cooper’s Playtex campaign called attention to the virgin/whore dichotomy that ruled America during the Kennedy administration. In the Season 2 episode “Maidenform,” the agency theorized that every woman was either a Jackie or Marilyn, though Peggy was clearly neither. Even the women who subscribed to this philosophy were hurt by it: Joan became more and more conflicted about her designation as office sexpot, while Betty struggled to hold up the image of a perfect marriage.
Peggy’s big break at Sterling Cooper was through her work for Clearasil. Though the agency gave the client to her as a bit of a throwaway, Peggy’s campaigning helped turn it into one of the agency’s most valuable brands. Meanwhile, Pete attempts to use nepotism to push his ideas into the forefront, as his father-in-law is a Clearasil executive (though it’s exactly this relationship that will damn the account). It’s one of the first times a Sterling Cooper employee feels legitimately threatened by Peggy.
Gender roles continue to be important to SCDP’s ads in their Bye Bye Birdie campaign for women’s drink Patio. The account provides yet another venue for Peggy to meditate on what womanhood means in the context of her life, as the agency’s resident female voice finds Ann-Margret’s sexuality shrill and desperate. But Patio reveals that the gender binary entraps men as well — Sal Romano’s enthusiasm for the campaign betrays his latent homosexuality to his wife and sets up his character’s abrupt exit from the show.
SCDP’s first car caused some serious shitstorms in Mad Men‘s recent seasons. Though the agency initially sees their acquisition of Jaguar as a good sign, it’s a harbinger of doom in which partners are gained and lost in equally terrible ways. Modern-day Jaguar wasn’t as happy with their role in the show as Hershey’s: Jaguar USA Vice President David Pryor said he “was [gratified] to see our brand portrayed…[but obviously] it was kind of tainted … with the storyline.” No kidding.
Airlines also proved to be in high demand for agencies, but Mohawk became another seemingly big account that SCDP almost immediately classified as a dead loss. The now-defunct Mohawk wasn’t a big name when SCDP picked it up and suffered from competition with other airlines. While the agency bends over backwards for Jaguar, Mohawk is almost a joke. We haven’t heard a ton about the airline lately, but the doomed brand will undoubtedly come back to the forefront next season.
Peggy was fortunate enough to leave SCDP right as the ship was beginning to sink, and her work for Johnson’s Glo-Coat surely set up her departure. Despite her heavy involvement in the Clio-winning ad, Don accepts the award instead, causing a huge rift between the mentor and his protegée in “The Suitcase.” While Don and Peggy spend most of the episode renewing their bond, the incident permanently damaged her respect for him. This made it a lot easier for her to take a more promising job at Cutler, Gleason, & Chaough, though we know Peggy doesn’t get to escape SCDP that easily.
“Every time we get a car, this place turns into a whorehouse.” The newly merged SCDP and CGC landed the highly coveted Chevy account simply by joining forces, but a bigger name means higher stakes, and the agency descended into chaos almost immediately. An experiment with stimulants, aimed at catalyzing creative breakthroughs, turned the office into a coked-out caricature of itself, leading the usually sensible employees to one useless, incoherent epiphany after another. Some viewers have theorized the super-agency’s relationship with Chevy is one big allegory for Vietnam, a last-ditch shot at glory they have no chance of winning — especially because the product itself is doomed. Sterling Cooper & Partners seems to have landed Chevy’s worst car ever, but the brand has been using its involvement in Mad Men to its advantage. After Don and Ted quietly landed the account, Chevy asked fans to guess what their unseen pitch was. Smart marketing on their part, considering that the big idea probably isn’t headed anywhere good.
But, of course, the show’s most iconic use of branding is, well, a Kodak moment. In a perfect counterpoint to the pilot’s attempt at preserving old ideas, Don uses a Kodak slide projector to poignantly admit the futility of his efforts. While Sterling Cooper can’t protect America from oncoming chaos, it can provide it with the comfort of nostalgia (which does not “literally [mean] ‘the pain from an old wound,'” by the way). It’s the idyllic picture of Americana that Don couldn’t bring himself to paint in Sunday’s finale.