Mad Men: product displacement

Mad MenMad Men creator Matthew Weiner visited Australia, and he told Miguel Gonzalez that working with brands and gaining creative independence in the tv industry can be absolute madness.

Has there ever been a more perfect setting for product placement, than a period series set at a fictional Madison Avenue advertising agency – Sterling Cooper – in the early 1960s? After all, brands and ads are the characters’ bread and butter, and the retro feel can generate a certain enjoyment of what in any other show could be considered shameless or unnecessary product placement. When the series protagonist Don Draper talks about Lucky Strike, he’s not selling cigarettes to his 21st century audience; he’s doing his job. It doesn’t get more necessary than that.
There are dozens of brands in each episode of Mad Men, and it would be easy to think that Matthew Weiner, its creator and executive producer, as well as US pay-TV network ACM, are making a lot of  money from this paid product placement.
It would also be wrong.
“There have been three paid brands in the show’s three seasons and 39 episodes,” explained Weiner. “I wish I could accommodate more, and it bothers me because I don’t get any money from all that I’m doing on the show. Maybe the network wants people to think we have a lot of placements so they can try to get more of them, but it’s very hard to close these deals.”
At first, companies would be hesitant because they didn’t know who the show’s audience was. Now they do, particularly after the critical success that has seen the series win Emmys and Golden Globes; an upscale, affluent audience that, according to Forbes, has more adult viewers aged 25-54 with household income greater than U$100,000 of any show on pay-TV.
According to Weiner, who has absolute creative control over the series, brands are always there to serve the story.
Sometimes it is him who wants to do something with a particular product, and others it is a potential sponsor who contacts the production to suggest a potential story about the company’s efforts at that time.
“But usually what happens, through no fault of anybody else’s, is that they don’t always like the way it’s been handled (read about John Hillcoat’s similar experience on the March issue of Encore).
“They never want to pay for this stuff. If I want to work on a whole storyline for Pepsi, I pick the idea. In the third series it was [the company’s defunct diet soft drink line] Patio. But if went to them and said ‘I want to make fun of your brand’, that is not product placement. Cadillac was not placement; they would never let you vomit on their car.”
Weiner believes that content creators can – and should – explore potential opportunities with advertisers, but instead of product placement it should be seen as product integration.
“I feel that I’m completely entitled to do it, and I would never whore the show out, I would never degrade it by making it just like a bunch of ads.
“Heineken was paid for, and it was period-appropriate and part of the story. There was no moment that said ‘buy Heineken’. Don and [the character’s tormented wife] Betty’s marriage almost broke up that episode because he brought Heineken home, and they went for that. That is to me an incredible successful integration and they saw great results from it.”

A former writer for Ted Danson’s 1998-2004 sitcom Becker, Weiner proved his drama skills when he joined the acclaimed The Sopranos as an executive producer and writer. But even with those  credentials, getting Mad Men on the air was not an easy task.
Each 47-minute episode is shot in seven days on a U$2.8m budget, which is practically peanuts by US television standards.
“We don’t have a lot of money, we don’t have a lot of time to shoot it, and even the writing is done under certain time constraints, but that’s what television is,” said Weiner. “I can’t afford to go outside, so my feeling is that a well-appointed interior is just as good as doing a period exterior with green screen.”
It is a drama that is not afraid of long conversations – or long silences. Season cliffhangers are not necessarily dealt with in the following episode, and storylines take their time to develop.
Weiner talks about “training the audience” to learn how to read the show, and how he wants people to take this world ‘seriously’, in a time when content is seen as disposable entertainment to be seen on-thego, paying little attention to it. Is Weiner swimming against the current?
“That’s a really nice way to put it. People are starved for this, and I know that because I’m a viewer. Our show is not going at a Desperate Housewives pace, so those who expect that will be disappointed.
“I don’t want to follow the rules of traditional TV, and I think that’s delicious, because when something big finally happens it’s totally earned.”
Audiences have responded, moderately. With an average two million viewers in the US – less than 1 percent of a big audience is more lucrative than a similar scenario in Australia – and healthy DVD sales, it is becoming a brand in itself, but it hasn’t happened overnight. Broadcasters in the US, here and everywhere, want immediate financial rewards. In such adverse conditions, how does any country’s television industry get programs like Mad Men?
“People have to think long-term, and we need more adventurous TV executives. Many of the old big hits would not get past most executives today,” replied Weiner.

But producers should also be willing to be flexible.“They told me, ‘if you want to do your show for one quarter of what it would cost to do it elsewhere, and you salary and everything else will be  commensurate with that, we will let you do whatever you want’. Most people would say ‘forget it’, and I said ‘let’s do it’.
“I worked for far less and so did everybody else. The network had no advertising budget. The show had no established audience, we had no time slot, we had no lead in, and we were on seven times a week. That’s the business part of it; the creative part of it is they left me alone to create it.”
Weiner’s attention to detail has captured the imagination of the US media. His meticulous reconstruction of the time and place has earned him descriptions ranging from perfectionist to fetishist and
manic. He’s reportedly pointed out that some apples visible in a scene were too large and shiny for the era. Needless to say, set decorator Amy Wells had to find 60s-appropriate apples before the scene
could be shot.
“If I’ve created a mythology around the series, it’s been an accident. The control is pretty real but my interest is in the audience,” he said. “People’s attachment to the show is flattering to me. I’ve been surprised by some of the analysis, but your dream is to be taken seriously as an artist, and I am being heard on some level.”
However, Weiner is not against feedback, and believes that, sometimes, people should be willing to hear what they don’t want to hear.
“When you’re on the non-creative side of it, you’re talking about a huge amount of money so they want to check off all the boxes and make sure it tests well with everyone.
“I was lucky enough to find a place where they told me ‘you know more about this than we do, so let’s keep you from spending too much money and we’ll tell you what we like and what we don’t’, but if you have 10 people telling you they hate it and you still go ahead and do it, it’s your problem,” he said.
The creatives at Sterling Cooper are living an era of historical changes in the media without even realising it; radio is yesterday’s news and television is the present and the only foreseeable future. Through it all, Don Draper remains calm and confident.
Contemporary content creators, broadcasters and advertisers have gone through perhaps an even more profound and still ongoing transformation, as traditional television and cinema models suffer with the growth of online and portable devices, struggling to find the best way to capitalise their work. What would Draper say to them?
“Don’t panic,” says Weiner. “That’s what Don would say. Wait and see how the landscape shapes out, and don’t be afraid to do something new. He said it already, you want to be a needle in a haystack, but you don’t want to be a haystack.
“In a way it’s all the same and you may have to find more locations to reach your audience, but your product is your product and you still have to respect the audience.”
But don’t expect to see an 80-year-old Don Draper working on viral campaigns in an upcoming season of Mad Men.
“I don’t think Draper is even going to be alive in the 90s. Let’s be honest, he lives very hard,” said Weiner.
In the meantime, the executive still has plenty of retro stories to tell. Mad Men season three starts on February 25 on Movie Extra.


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