I thoroughly enjoyed this past week’s Mad Men, as I do almost every week. As a designer, there’s an extra bit of thrill that comes with episodes that include creative pitches, like this one. In the earlier seasons, it was exciting to watch the tactics that Don used to sell kind-of-okay work to clients, but as we’ve moved forward through advertising’s creative revolution the work itself has become more and more something to look forward to.
Stan’s strategy for clearing the cobwebs seems to have worked, because the campaign SCDP pitched for Heinz was arguably the best work we’ve seen on the show so far. Don clearly believed in this work, presenting it with the least bravado he’s given to a pitch, aside from when he pitched Life Cereal while blackout drunk.
Don presents three beautiful closeups of food on a white background. “It’s clean, it’s simple, and it’s tantalizingly incomplete,” he says. “What’s missing?”
Obviously, ketchup is. You’re already beginning to think of these foods covered in ketchup. But when Don and Stan flip over the acetate, it’s not ketchup that comes with it, but a three-word headline in black Helvetica Condensed Bold.
Ketchup, as a condiment, isn’t all that appetizing by itself. Fries, or steak, or a burger is what’s appetizing, but fries and ketchup, or steak and ketchup, or a burger and ketchup is even more so. It’s the tension in these ads that makes them successful — it’s a print ad, but it’s not motionless because you’re already imagining the viscous red sauce being slowly poured over these foods. As Don says, the audience’s imagination has no budget or time limit.
In fact, not even the word “ketchup” is in the ad. The client’s first reaction, of course, is “You mean Heinz *ketchup*.” But by assuming the audience will make the connection in their heads (which they will), the campaign creates an indelible connection. Heinz is ketchup. Fries need ketchup. Fries need Heinz. It’s a shrewd bit of branding.
The layout of the ad also supports the tension of incompleteness. Although the ad is dominated by the oversized food photography, the focal point of the ad is the tiny black headline in the vast sea of white. Your eye lands there because of the point force from the fries and the swelling force from the white field, making it the ad’s punchline.
The client, reluctant to have an ad without the actual product in it, says, “I think I still want to see our bottle.” When Stan (in a mustard-colored blazer, which I think is funny) starts to defend leaving it out, Pete cuts him off with, “We’ll test it both ways.” Some may interpret this as Pete appeasing the client, but I think this is Pete being much more shrewd, knowing that “We’ll test it both ways” really means “We’re going to leave it out anyway.” No client wants to think that you think you’re smarter than he is.
Peggy’s ad is philosophically almost the exact opposite of Don’s. It shows the product, the headline takes up the entire thing, and the art and copy don’t really inform each other. In fact, the inverse of Peggy’s headline is the reasoning that Don uses to justify the omission of the word “ketchup” — “It’s Heinz. It only means one thing.” Peggy’s is still a good ad, but it doesn’t operate on the same level of subtlety as Don and Stan’s.
Peggy’s headline is a strategy statement. That alone doesn’t make it a bad headline, but where Don’s ad succeeds is in allowing consumers to come to that conclusion themselves, rather than outright telling them. This strategy does work, however, because it tells a pre-existing truth instead of trying to implant a new idea. Heinz today has a 60 percent market share in ketchup — the next-highest is Hunt’s, with 16. I can’t find numbers for 1968, but if it’s even anywhere close to that it’s not outrageous to say that Heinz is the only ketchup.
The Warhol-esque art direction, with the type in cheeky Futura (kudos to the art department for using an optically corrected cut of Futura, too) also pushes Heinz Ketchup and its bottle as a pop cultural icon.
Of course, the client picks neither of these ads, instead opting to go with the giant agency J. Walter Thompson.
I hope we get to see more pitches as the season goes on — if these first four episodes are any indication, then it seems as though Don and Peggy’s newfound professional rivalry is going to be a dominant theme in season six.