Selling Out “Mad Men”

Product placement battle could shape up as fight for the soul of a show about a soulless business.

On one of last season's best "Mad Men" episodes, Don Draper puts an ad in The New York Times basically decrying tobacco as evil and vowing his agency will never work on another cigarette adverting campaign.

Never mind that Draper was puffing away as he wrote the open letter, which was less about his opposition to big tobacco than a desperate ploy for buzz in reaction to his failing firm losing the lucrative Lucky Strike account and failing to woo Philip Morris.

Draper, as we knew watching 45 years later, was on the right side of history, even if he was motivated more by wanting to save his company than save the world. He got rewarded with business from the American Cancer Society.

The episode, which tossed around the tobacco brand names in less-than-favorable light, came to mind with news this week that one of the sticking points in AMC's negotiations with "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner is product placement.

At a time when sneaking virtual ads into TV programs and other entertainment is rampant, the force behind a show that relies on brand names for authenticity and driving the action apparently wants to control the amount of product integration into his creation.

AMC reportedly wants more product placement on "Mad Men." We’re probably not making too big a leap in assuming Weiner prefers that plot drive brand-name dropping, rather than the reverse.

It’s helpful to the look at the history of the show, which isn’t set to return until 2012 – hopefully with Weiner on board. There have been reports of companies like Smirnoff and London Fog inviting themselves to the “Mad Men” party, though the terms of the deals are unknown.

In some instances, brand-name mentions have been far from flattering. We still cringe when thinking about the episode in which a secretary riding a John Deere lawnmower during a drunken office party severed a young British ad executive’s foot. American Airlines figured prominently in an episode that recalled a real-life 1962 plane crash in New York.

Meanwhile, the jury is out on how many firms want their products featured on a show set way back in the 1960s. But a memorable 2009 piece in New York magazine's Vulture site, headlined, "The Hidden Genius of Mad Men Product Placement," suggested a good number of companies covet a spot, hoping the acclaimed drama’s retro cool will rub off.

It seems clear that Weiner wants creative control of product placement in his show, whatever the money situation. That would be the right move to maintain the credibility of a drama that, in some respects, is an advertisement for advertising, for better and often worse.

Weiner, who operates in an industry where commerce constantly clashes with creativity, appears to be taking a stand that puts him on right side of history – just like his smoke-blowing invention, Don Draper.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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