Comments on real “Mad Men”

Winston Fletcher, Advertising, A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

I have been a fan of the “very short introduction” series for a bit less than five years.  The series began in the mid 1990s as a way to use the expertise of writers and researchers to construct short, accessible pieces that serve the reading public interested in opening their minds to new topics.  There are over 200 topics from which to choose – my first exposure was History by John Arnold – and the field covers almost anything one might conceive of from game theory to kabbalah to conceptual art.  The series is appealing both for its intentional brevity and affordability – generally you can get a copy for $11.95 or less.  In June, when asked to review a book proposal for Oxford University Press, I was presented with the option of a cash honorarium or a larger amount of cash value in books – I chose the books and ended up picking a significant number of the very short introduction titles to add to my bookshelf.

The late Winston Fletcher was a British advertising professional who has written most often on advertising and the media.  Fletcher’s life story is intriguing and, oddly, has some parallels to fictional ad man character Don Draper – an uneasy childhood, travel to some exotic locales as a younger man, creating success for himself at an ad agency quickly by the late 1950s, and, by 1969 (almost where Matthew Weiner has his series) Fletcher was the majority shareholder at a firm that would eventually be bought out by an American business some fifteen years later.  Spoiler alert, Don Draper is not looking as successful as Fletcher on the eve of 1969, but we’ll see what next season brings.

Fletcher’s  Advertising is a compact 140 pages, including the index, and clearly and concisely explains such topics as “what does advertising do?”, “creative,” “how the advertising industry is structured,” etc.  He claims that the profession is riddled with myths and misunderstandings, particularly about the power of ads, moral questions, and the origins of the profession – I’m curious as to how Fletcher would react to Weiner’s Mad Men given how many of these myths are widespread throughout the television series.

Fletcher gives the reader what he defines as the “industry definition” of advertising.  It is, simply put, one type of marketing communication.  Fletcher points out that advertising, often tied together with advertisements, is itself a process, whereas the ads themselves are the final result of the process.  So what is this one form of marketing?

An advertisement is a paid-for communication intended to inform and/or persuade one or more people (2).

Key words include paid, communication, and intended.  Key concepts certainly are about informing/persuading and the idea that one or more people are the intended audience (2,3).  We don’t always conceive of the point that an advertisement could be aimed at a single individual, but even as late as 2010 Fletcher points out that 40% of advertising revenue in Britain was generated by classifieds.  That being said, Fletcher focuses on mass consumer advertising in the media of television, newspapers, radio, and the internet.

Because of the varied methods of communicating the message and because advertising itself does not have a singular purpose, Fletcher suggests that it has diverse objectives.  Yes, the intent is generally to sell goods and services, but not every advertisement accomplishes this task or even tries to make a sale.  When asking the question “what does advertising do” Fletcher emerges with many answers ranging from launching new products to persuading people to use more of an existing line.  I remember speaking with friends in the early 1990s  who worked in advertising, one at Chicago’s legendary Leo Burnett Worldwide, the other on Madison Avenue in New York, about what was their intent?  How did they know they were successful?  Both were account men, so, think Pete Campbell and Ken Cosgrove, not Don Draper’s creative side.  For one of them, success was measured not by whether the campaign he worked on sold one more ____ – it was about whether people could point to the work or the ad itself and recall it.  I recall being surprised by his point – it’s an admittedly small sample, but the variety of purpose in advertising and divergent views about what it does is clearly expressed in Fletcher’s work.

There’s much to recommend in Fletcher’s small book including his fascinating discussion of branding, the section on the creative side of advertising, a brief history of the industry, and some great British expressions – for example, it is absolute “twaddle” if people believe advertising is only a century or two old or that it was invented in America (17).  There are a few critiques one might offer too – William Fletcher was not a historian so some of his chronology is a bit fuzzy.  In his discussion of advertising history for example, Fletcher suggests that brands first appeared in Victorian times and that numerous Victorian brands still exist after 200 years or more.  Well, Victorian times is named after Queen Victoria and her coronation was in 1837 – we haven’t quite reached 200 years hence!  Also, one of the oldest brands referenced which has hit its bicentennial, Lea and Perrin’s for example, was created prior to Victoria’s birth!  Had Fletcher been American, I might have expected such chronological challenges.

Timeline errors aside, the section on brands is strong and calls to mind two of my favorite pieces of fiction, Weiner’s Mad Men and William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition.  Fletcher explains to the reader that while brands don’t have to be more expensive but they must meet four basic criteria – unique name and packaging, unique qualities that differentiate it from similar products, possess both functional and emotive qualities, generate profits through a price better than “unbranded” products (42).  A successful brand has an image and may continue its power for decades or even over a century.  Brands become something to which people may, as Don Draper suggests in season one of Mad Men, develop a sentimental bond to the product.  Brands can ensure profitability – they can also, for William Gibson’s Cayce Pollard, engender horror, which is part of what makes her character both paradoxical and intriguing.

A final word – if you have an interest in advertising but don’t understand it all that well, Fletcher’s book can easily enlighten you.  Reading the sections on creativity and his final chapter on the role of advertising in society are both highly recommended.  We might disagree with some ideas in both chapters but there will also be much on which to hang ones hat.  Fans of Mad Men will appreciate his use of an old advertising quip that creative types are often “covered in love bites.  Self-inflicted of course” (77).  Instructors of both history and business classes will appreciate the text as a brief treatise on the field, and yet one that offers some moral complexities in the final chapter – for example, is it good thing that people need advertising to jog their memories into remembering to purchase a particular product (130)?  Fletcher’s Advertising is a great advertisement itself for the benefits and strengths of Oxford’s “very short introduction” series.

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