“Mad Men” and the rise of the advertising industry in the 60s

by | Jul 7, 2021 | Marketing and communication

Home 9 Marketing and communication 9 “Mad Men” and the rise of the advertising industry in the 60s

It’s hard to say when advertising started, but it’s clear that the 60s was the decade of significant changes for the advertising industry and a new way of marketing caught on. The tv series “Mad Men” well depicts the society of the 60s and the rise of advertising.

The post-WWII economic boom resulted in a quick increase in consumerism. People started to buy many standardized goods to express their status and to aim for the American Dream. Companies had to stand out from the crowd to attract potential customers and make them loyal habitues. In this context, the message became the key factor, and the advertising industry flourished.

The tv series “Mad Men” (named after “Madison Avenue men”, the street in New York considered the mecca of advertising in the 60s) describes life at the fictional Sterling Cooper advertising agency tracking the creative director’s professional career, Don Draper. We can see representations of the making of some of the most brilliant commercials of those years to draw inspiration from them. Watch all the seasons on Amazon Prime Video.

Brand management

Before the 60s, companies had advertised their products focusing on lists of characteristics and qualities. In the 60s, more standardized products brought the necessity to differentiate from competitors. For instance, what is the real difference between a can of Coca Cola and one of Pepsi? Marketers  started to build a system of values behind brands. Pepsi coined “Pepsi Generation”  to target the younger audience. Coca Cola, on the other hand, decided to connect the brand to values from the hippy counterculture and the desire of young people to stand against the earlier generation.

An example is the Hilltop Coke Commercial of 1971– that also ends “Mad Men”. Here we can see one of the main symbols of the American Dream – home – that is now filled up with elements like peace, company and race. All those values are transferred to the brand to make a connection with customers.

The key is finding values or elements that better identify the brand. Another industry where products are all alike is tobacco. In a scene from “Mad Men”, Don Draper found a way to differentiate his client’s cigarettes by using a headline that referred to the production process: “Lucky Strike, it’s toasted”. Every cigarette was toasted, but nobody had told that before, so this became the so-called unique selling proposition.


Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. Andyou know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s the billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is ok. You are ok”. This quote from “Mad Men” explains how Don Draper came out with the headline for Jaguar, a fast, expensive and dangerous car. How could he sell such a problematic product targeting a man that already had everything? His genius brought him to the idea of comparing the luxury to the stereotype of an unattainable girl who is pretty, temperamental and beyond their reach. But Jaguar became “something beautiful you can truly own”. He got to the heart of his potential customer by teasing their emotions.

The role of women

Alcoa Alluminum commercialThe role of women in the 60s is controversial, and we can clearly see it in commercials. As we see it in “Mad Men”, Jaguar is an example of the objectification of women. In Alcoa Aluminum commercial, the image of a woman with a bottle of ketchup grabs the attention of the consumer and the headline says “You mean a woman can open it?”- where “woman” is even underlined. Do we need more to understand how women were considered by society and consequently in advertising?


Today we have influencers: celebrities from show business and sport or even ordinary people who have built communities around them on social media. They catalyze the communication flow online and offline; they can move tons of people and make them buy a product; they are trend setters. Their strength comes from popularity and a set of values that they represent. On the contrary, the 60s had testimonials. In this decade Ronald McDonald and the Pillsbury Doughboy were born. We can also see other fictional characters like the Marlboro Man, a cowboy wearing blue jeans that is correlated to the values that were supposed to belong to the perfect American man.

Sometimes testimonials are used to justify a controversial topic. For instance, Camel used some undefined “Nationwide survey” to say that “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette”. This statement adds authoritativeness to a statement that rebuts the commonsense regarding tobacco negative effects.

Audience segmentation

Values are the key to expressing the brand, reaching specific audiences and getting to customers’ hearts. This is a standardized world, but everyone has particular interests and behaviours. The role of marketing and advertising is to anonymously segment audience in clusters and fill these clusters with people by socio-demographic info and data about hobbies and beahaviours. Advertisers break through these clusters and find the most effective way to target the audience with the right message. This is how advertising is working in the digital era.

If today we can do that, we should thank all the “Don Drapers” that in the 60s started studying the psychology behind consumer behaviour and how to target new potential clients. In a scene from Mad Men, we can see one of the associates dividing the office population into two female sub-clusters based on their physical appearance and behaviour: “Every woman is a Marylin or a Jacquie”.

Luigi Nervo

Luigi Nervo

Digital Marketing Manager

Marketing, Seo and content expert (read the bio).

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Luigi Nervo

Luigi Nervo

Digital Marketing Manager

Marketing, Seo and content expert (read the bio).