NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- We're just through the fourth episode of the fourth season of "Mad Men" -- historical coordinates: late February 1965 -- and Don Draper's descent into a whiskey-sodden slut is as depressing as it is fast.
Don the drunk
Divorce is treating him unkindly, as is his Canadian Club drip. That Draper is a cad was well known outside his workplace but that reality somehow never penetrated the carefully constructed aura he'd built within Sterling Cooper. It helped that he never you-know-whated where he ate -- or at least he didn't until two episodes ago, when he Draperized his secretary on his couch.
News of that romp got out of the bag last night after an extremely emo focus group for Pond's Cold Cream in which the agency's secretaries took part. That led to a teary and ultimately disastrous spat between Peggy and Draper's girl, Allison, who assumed Peggy was also a notch on Draper's belt. Peggy might have stormed out, angered that her hero and mentor was slagged down, but her own plot thread, in which she bonds -- but doesn't bond -- with another female professional in the building is evidence of a growing network of professional women who won't take this lying down, so to speak.
While venting to Peggy, Allison calls Don a "drunk." Obvious as that diagnosis may be, it's the first such judgment I recall hearing verbalized on "Mad Men" (in the office, that is �- one of Don's neighbors in his Village apartment building, a nurse, helped him inside a couple weeks ago, assuring him she had "plenty of experience with drunks.") Short glasses filled with a couple fingers of brown liquid are what pens would be in today's offices, and the womanizing has been taken for granted, too. But now it seems that the womanized, long confined to silent crying jags in the bathroom, are speaking up. Those newly found voices may be unorganized but, nevertheless, the cracks in the patriarchal foundation of the agency are showing.
Dropping a client
As agency machinations go, the decision to drop a client is always an interesting one. The powers that be at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are forced to make a choice between the loyal Clearasil, where Pete Campbell's father-in-law is an executive, and conflicting account Pond's Cold Cream, recently brought to the agency by a dried-out Freddie Rumsen. Actually, it's not much of a choice at all, since Pond's is a bigger earner, putting Pete in an awkward situation.
The difference between the two products matches the overarching "Mad Men" friction between past and future. Cold cream -- originally an emulsion of water and fats such as beeswax believed to clear up the skin -- goes back to the 17th century. That makes the venerable Pond's brand, which began as a witch-hazel-based product in 1846 and was revamped as a cream in the early 1900s, a late entrant. Clearasil, on the other hand, was a thoroughly modern invention, born in a lab in 1950 as the first dermatological solution for acne. It was -- and still is -- a big-spending brand among teenagers. Compared to Pond's claims of fighting against aging, the nebulousness of which is being broadcast by the market-research extravaganza going on in the office, Clearasil has strong sales, not to mention a straightforward proposition: It'll zap your zits.
Pete ends up trading out Clearasil for the the much bigger throat-medicine portfolio, including Vicks cough syrup and VapoRub. Fitting for an episode titled "The Rejected," Clearasil and Pete's father-in-law are added to the ranks of others who have received the short end of the stick: Allison and the other secretaries lamenting their husband-less existences, the lesbian (or at least bi-curious) Life photo editor shot down by Peggy, and, of course Draper, for whom this season is one long rejection.
(Historical note: In 1965, the company that had been Vicks Chemical was called Richardson Merrell. It would be renamed Richardson-Vicks in 1980.) The $6 million account on it way to the agency would be worth $41.5 million in today's terms. Not too shabby. The relationship would also set the agency on a path to become an important roster shop for Procter & Gamble, which purchased Richardson-Vicks in 1985.
'Retarded people' at McCann
Older agency hands might have thought their Viagra was kicking in when Lane Pryce threw off some 15%-commission math, but rousing memories of that favorable and extinct compensation model were likely doused after Campbell and Crane's lunch with Ken Cosgrove.
After lashing regular "Mad Men" whipping agency McCann Erickson as full of "retarded people," Cosgrove told of the tough life for smaller agencies. "We're chasing Mountain Dew, and supposedly we're going to turn it into Pepsi, but the only reason Pepsi would do that is to make BBDO sweat. This whole idea that we get the bigger company is a joke. We just end up with a bunch of little pieces."
Pepsi did end up putting the pressure on BBDO, by initially assigning Mountain Dew to Ogilvy & Mather after it purchased the brand in 1964. Mountain Dew would eventually shift to BBDO in 1973, and the brand would remain there for decades.
The episode's opening has Draper and Sterling on a call with the Lucky Strike client, Lee Garner Jr. That's important because 1965 was the year of the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act, which required that manufacturers place health warnings on cigarette packages. There's a glib tone to Draper and Sterling's counsel that's hard not to read as foreboding in light of what we know is coming: By the end of the decade, broadcast advertising for tobacco products would be banned, putting a major hurt on the many ad agencies which, like Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, were heavily reliant on big tobacco budgets.
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Matt Creamer is a former Ad Age reporter and editor. Follow him on Twitter at @matt_creamer.