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Why Don Draper won the Dove brief

Unilever has come up with a cute but controversial “hommage within an hommage” advertising blitz – featuring six of its power brands – in the latest series of Mad Men, which is now airing in the USA.

Like the series itself, the ads recreate a fictional early Sixties hot shop; in this case SmithWinterMitchell. Each episode stars two of its principals, copywriter Phil Smith and art director Tad Winter, wrestling with a campaign brief for, in succession, Dove, Breyers, Hellman’s, Klondike, Suave and Vaseline.

Neat, eh? And there’s more. The ads (devised by WPP’s Mindshare Entertainment) subtly underline the deep brand heritage. “The featured brands are prominent today and were popular in the 1960s, when Mad Men is set,” suggests a Unilever spokewoman, quoted in Ad Age.

So far, so good. The controversial bit is that viewers and the blogosphere don’t seem to like them very much. Some have deprecated the prelapsarian style of the pitch – and contrasted the first ad, featuring Dove, unfavourably with the cutting-edge modernity of the Real Women theme. Others have juxtaposed the “fake” production values of the ad mini-series with the exquisite realism of the content surrounding it.

It’s true, the ads are corny compared with the programme they mimic. But somehow I don’t think anyone at Unilever, Mindshare, or indeed AMC (the cable station that broadcasts Mad Men) will be losing sleep over the criticisms. The big irony of the ad soap opera – featuring Don Draper, Roger Sterling and sundry curvaceous size-16 “role models” – is that it doesn’t attract much advertising. In 2009, it earned under $2m ad revenue – according to Kantar – a performance barely exceeded in the previous two seasons. But then, it’s a highbrow drama that doesn’t attract much of an audience either. Some 2.4 million people tuned into the fourth-season premiere on July 25; and that’s a lot better than previous seasons’ viewing figures. Then again, each of the 12 or 13 episodes apparently costs over $3m to produce. In short, if Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce really were an ad agency – rather than a lovingly recreated fictional prism of WASP society before the Fall – it would have gone bust by now.

All of which rather misses the point of the programme’s existence and what Unilever is doing advertising in it. For AMC, it’s a halo product, a loss leader that encourages advertisers to buy into the schlock inventory that attracts mass audiences. For Unilever, it’s a cut-price opportunity to get itself talked about by America’s chattering classes. Sadly for Unilever, we in the UK will never be able to judge how much of an adornment or annoyance the ads really are. TV rights over here are held by the BBC.

Here’s a link to the Dove campaign. I particularly like the bit at the end, where the two admen – having been given the brief on a platter by their “Peggy Olson” secretary – reward themselves with a round of golf. Now that really is a period touch.

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