The first time we see Don Draper, he’s chasing an ad campaign across a cocktail napkin. He doesn’t catch it. That’s the drama of Don’s story, not that he’s cheating on his wife, not that he has a new secretary, but that he can’t figure out how to market cigarettes. Bad behavior gave Mad Men a reputation, but the creative process has been its actual muscle from the beginning. It’s toasted. A basket of kisses. Bye Bye Birdie. The GloCoat commercial. The bean ballet. Mad Men is a trove of memorable ad campaigns. Some flesh out characters, some develop themes, some are comic relief. But every year there’s a pitch so strong it defines the season. This is the story of Mad Men in seven pitches.
The episode: “The Wheel” (season one, episode 13)
The setup: The moment Mad Men became a genuine, certified cultural event came at the end of its first season. After the cautious raves of surprised critics, after Dick Whitman went to Korea and stole Don Draper’s identity so he could start a new life, even after Bert Cooper somersaults away from more than a decade of prestige drama with a 10.0 kiss-off: “Mr. Campbell, who cares?” What finally vaulted Mad Men into the pop consciousness of YouTube clips and breathless texts from friends was Don’s pitch to Kodak, the Carousel speech.
The pitch: Don sees the Kodak slide projector as a portable nostalgia generator, and he uses his own memories to sell it, from a story about his first job at a fur company to personal family photographs. “It’s called a carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.” It’s such a powerful pitch Don and Peggy keep reworking it over the years. Don threw a stone that’s still skipping across the lake.
The breakdown: Don’s approach is to exploit a yearning for the simple, happy Norman Rockwell family in his photographs. It works on Harry Crane, who had recently cheated on his wife and rushes out of the room in tears. But there are two little tensions to go with the big one at the end. First, these are photos we’ve never seen. Don and Betty sharing a kiss at midnight isn’t a memory. It’s a fantasy. They’re just models in an ad. Second, that family he’s selling doesn’t really exist. Betty Draper barely knows her husband.
Don then races home to catch his family before they leave to go to his in-laws’ to celebrate the ultimate American family holiday, Thanksgiving—but they’re already gone. That’s the central irony of Mad Men. The man selling the American dream goes home to a big, empty house. What’s more, Don knows exactly what he’s doing in that ad campaign, yet it still works on him. He’s both mastermind and mark, artist and salesman, conscious and unconscious. He can manipulate the market, but ultimately he’s just another green void within it.
The episode: “The Mountain King” (season two, episode 12)
The setup: Don disappeared in California after Betty kicked him out for philandering, so Peggy picks up the pieces in New York. In a season full of women trying to find happiness within the system—Jane Siegel aiming for a highly insured shoulder to cry on, Bobbie Barrett breaking into television, Joan finding more passion in her script-reading work than in her violently insecure fiancé—Peggy gets an office, a makeover, and the climactic pitch.
The pitch: “When I was little, my mother would take a Twin Pop and break it in half and give one to me and one to my sister.” Peggy manipulates nostalgia, too, but the simplicity she appeals to isn’t the effortlessly happy family. It’s the ritual, and what the ritual means, that she’s selling.
The breakdown: The ritual itself is a process of social order. It’s how things are done. It’s an early ’60s American dream. Like Don wishing he had the family he seems to, Peggy pines for the simplicity of going along with the system despite being something of a rule-breaker herself, putting her baby up for adoption and becoming Sterling Cooper’s first female copywriter. She’s also a lapsed Catholic. Not only is the breaking of the popsicle a version of Eucharist, but the mother in the ad resembles the Virgin Mary with her arms outstretched. Peggy wishes communion could make her feel better.
What this ritual signifies, though, is maternal love. Peggy’s still a young copywriter at this point, and she doesn’t pull out a Carousel speech performance. She’s more controlled. But she does go home to an empty house of her own making. As she tells Pete in their final scene of the season finale, “I had your baby, and I gave it away.” She could have made him marry her, but she didn’t want that. It’s a decision that she’s trying to make peace with, and one that will continue to prey on her own yearning for that family in Don’s carousel throughout the series.
The episode: “Wee Small Hours” (season three, episode nine)
The setup: It’s a season of new empires built on old ruins. It’s the year Kennedy was assassinated, the Draper family broke apart, and Sterling Cooper shed characters only to rebuild itself from the rubble. What better product than Hilton hotels, or as Conrad Hilton sees them, missions for the American empire. He wants one on the moon someday. Conrad’s a taskmaster who believes he got where he is all on his own, and he manipulates Don by feigning fatherly closeness. He calls at all hours, demands free advertising advice, and forces Don to bind his career to a three-year contract with Sterling Cooper, which is all well and good except Don and his allies don’t run Sterling Cooper anymore. Eventually, in the same episode that Lucky Strike gets Sal Romano fired, Conrad comes in to see Don’s pitch.
The pitch: Americans live like kings relative to the rest of the world, and now they can live like kings in the rest of the world. With Hilton. Don says it’s not chauvinism, just high standards. It appeals to Connie’s self-perception. He’s not a rapacious manipulator. He just has high standards.
The breakdown: Connie was right about that part. He admires the pitch, but he doesn’t buy it, because there was nothing about the moon. “What do you want from me, love? Your work is good. But when I say I want the moon, I expect the moon.” That last part speaks to Connie and his imperial season, but the first part taps into the whole series. There’s a difference between a professional relationship and a personal one. It’s not about love at work. As Don himself says, “That’s what the money’s for.” But Don (like Peggy and Pete and sometimes Joan and sometimes Roger) is someone who throws himself into his work to compensate for holes in his personal life. He does want love from Connie. But the only support he’s going to get is financial.
The episode: “Waldorf Stories” (season four, episode six)
The setup: On the same night Don Draper first accepts a Clio for the GloCoat commercial he made from Peggy’s pitch, creator Matthew Weiner and Erin Levy accepted Emmys for writing Mad Men, complete with some awkward banter about the very subject of sharing credit. “Waldorf Stories” is Mad Men at its most self-aware. It contains a flashback to Don’s job at the fur company, the one he cited in the Carousel speech, and then it goes on to bastardize one of Mad Men’s high points in a pathetic, hilarious pitch for Life cereal.
The pitch: Don’s drunk from celebrating, but that doesn’t stop him from pitching at a client meeting. He burps like Robert Durst through a speech about nostalgia. “You remember something from the past, and it feels good, but it’s a little bit painful.” Get it? Don’s trying to recreate the magic of an old memory in which he was recreating the magic of older memories, and it’s about as effective as the high school football hero reminiscing in a bar a decade later. You can’t go home again.
The breakdown: Expectations to the contrary, the merest suggestion of nostalgia appeals to the Life execs, men who think their audience is too dense for irony because they themselves are too dense for irony. But they aren’t thrilled with the slogan, so Don spitballs, accidentally stealing one idea from a freelancer. “Life: the cure for the common breakfast.” That one the execs love because it’s a cliché. For once the substance of the ad has no thematic connection to the season. It’s the emptiness that’s relevant in the season where Joan flirts with a gay man at a fake party that isn’t fun and a character’s death is played for laughs. Don’t be fooled by the bright colors, the shining set, and the parade of new characters. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce isn’t a fresh start at all, and its high point, “The Suitcase,” might not be all it seems either. It culminates in Peggy placing her hand on Don’s, taking the place of the only woman who ever really knew him. But she doesn’t know Don, exactly, and their relationship is almost never this intimate again. “The Suitcase” is another Carousel speech, a cathartic climax, sure, but also a sneaky, self-conscious bit of salesmanship.
The episode: “The Other Woman” (season five, episode 11)
The setup: Madison Avenue sleaze finally lives up to its reputation. The head of the Jaguar dealers association demands a night with Joan in exchange for a vote for SCDP, one of three agencies in the running for Jaguar’s business. Joan parlays the grossness into a partnership, but when Don finds out, he rushes to her apartment to stop her. “Who wants to be in business with people like that?” He’s talking about Jaguar. What he doesn’t know is that his partners are people like that.
The pitch: Ginsberg dreams up an appropriately dominant tag for the unreliable luxury: “Jaguar: At last something beautiful you can truly own.” Like the Hilton pitch, it’s imperial. Jaguar is an expensive piece of junk, the perfect product for conspicuous consumption. Don’s marketing the car for the guy who has everything but it’s not enough. What better description of Don when we first met him? Don keeps swinging between those two American dreams, the happy home and manifest destiny. The doting husband and the man who must conquer beauty. A yearning for a fantasy that never existed and a yearning for a fantasy that will never exist.
The breakdown: As the pitch unfolds, flashbacks reveal that Joan had already earned her partnership before Don could stop her. The dramatic irony is the perfect punchline for Don’s pitch. He’s trying to exploit these guys who always get what they want by appealing to their rapacity, but that’s not how it works. They’re the exploiters. And like the Hilton pitch, Don’s overall presentation doesn’t matter nearly as much as his submission.
The episode: “In Care Of” (season six, episode 13)
The setup: Don started Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as a partner, but after a merger with Cutler Gleason Chaough, he winds up on the outs. So he’s been drinking like it’s “Waldorf Stories,” and going to war with Ted over Peggy. But the last straw happens when he’s honest in a pitch for Hershey’s. Don lets them see both the Carousel and the empty house at Thanksgiving.
The pitch: First, the Carousel. Don regales the execs with a story about his childhood ritual with Hershey’s, Don’s version of Peggy’s Popsicle pitch. (Notice the symmetry of these pitches, folding on the moment Don hollowed out the Carousel speech.) Don says his dad would reward him for mowing the lawn by taking him to the drug store, buying him a Hershey’s bar, and then tousling his hair, forever associating Hershey’s with love. “Hershey’s is the currency of affection.” It’s one of the show’s more blatantly repulsive tags, marketing an unattainable Rockwell home with a consumerist guilt trip. Everyone loves it. But then Don interrupts. “I have to say this, because I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again.”
The breakdown: The truth about Don’s connection to Hershey’s is that he grew up in a whorehouse and would only get a Hershey’s bar if he made enough money digging through the johns’ pockets when their pants were on the floor. But when he could eat a Hershey’s bar, it made him feel like he had a normal, happy childhood. In one way the Hershey’s pitch hollows out whatever shreds of sincerity remained in the Kodak pitch after six seasons. Don recounts a story from his childhood in an abusive home, far from a place where he knows he’s loved. But Don isn’t just pulling the curtain back on the nuclear family. In his own words, Hershey’s was the only sweet thing in his life. And not because it made him feel loved, but because it made him feel normal. That is, it made him feel like a part of that Rockwell family in his head. It doesn’t matter whether the fantasy family exists or not. What matters is young Dick Whitman buying into it. It was the only way he felt happy. So Don’s speech can’t be summed up by either “The currency of affection” or “If I had my way, you would never advertise.” The longer Mad Men runs, the more wrinkles it gets.
The episode: “Waterloo” (season seven, episode seven)
The setup: Don’s gone from ship’s captain to albatross, and he works for Peggy now on the Burger Chef account. She’s done the research herself at various locations, has thrown out a perfectly fine idea in order to come up with a great one, and finally invites Pete and Don to a Burger Chef restaurant to pitch her idea of filming there.
The pitch: The fast food joint as the new dining room. The ironies of the previous episode, “The Strategy,” deserve their own accounting—start with a TV spot pitching paradise as a place with no TV—but Carly Wray and Matthew Weiner build Peggy’s pitch into a dramatic high by combining the elements of all the other vital pitches: It’s a sentimental bid for family togetherness. It’s about conquering the dinner table. Most importantly, it mentions the moon. The opening is even shot like that of the Popsicle pitch, only this time, Peggy’s the one in the power seat.
The breakdown: Season seven is full of broken families, so when Lou Avery, the hack brought in to sit in Draper’s chair, praises Peggy’s idea by saying, “It’s nice to see family happiness again,” it both is and isn’t a joke on him, because the ad is and isn’t portraying an honest vision. Consumerism can’t help but sully a scene of pure, unadulterated love—as in the Hershey’s story—but wouldn’t it be nice to see a family share a happy meal no matter where it is? It’s in line with the mock Lucky Strike pitch. You’re going to die. Why not die with Burger Chef?
This is Mad Men in a scene. It’s a triumphant moment to watch everyone’s favorite liberated ad woman tap into America’s deep, spiritual yearning for human connection in order to peddle fast food. But Peggy’s story isn’t false. Over the years, as the characters have tried and failed and tried again, everyone’s become a little more honest with themselves and others about who they are and what they mean to one another. Now there’s a pitch that hears the Carousel speech and scoffs. “Does this family exist anymore?” Peggy asks. That’s one virtue of marketing fast food: It’s hard to be pretentious. So the season ends with an ad that embraces the compromises of the American family. The Kodak family was a lie, but the Burger Chef family might not be.