An Inside Look at What the Newsweek Mad Men Advertising Issue Means

Ad Age wrote this week about how Newsweek is reviving its 1960s design for a special ‘Mad Men’ issue. At DragonSearch, we have been working on a whole introspective on old vintage advertisements in, oddly enough, our own “Mad Men” theme which has been running for quite a while. Now I have to admit that while I don’t watch Mad Men, I do have a good appreciation for most things retro and this one article (that basically advertises for ads in an upcoming issue of styled advertisements based on a  TV show about advertisers – ha! say that ten times fast) says a whole lot about advertisement and marketing. What’s even more interesting is that while the article is about retro advertisements and Newsweek, this Ad Age piece says much more about marketing today.

cover of newsweek with jacqueline kennedy peeking through open doornewsweek cover with woman peeking through door of dragonsearch

Advertising in Society Shows Us Cultural Norms

Like many of the actual ads, one can really read into this piece and find a whole bunch of societal themes to focus on. What we are selling affects what people want to buy and advertisements from times past offer us a glimpse of society’s norms during that time. Of course, the article talks about how Newsweek itself faced those cultural changes. Compare the submissive role of women in advertising to the roles of women at Newsweek who were stuck at the grunt level of researchers and copywriters until a class action suit in the 70’s and  the parallel norm becomes clear. Or look at the ridiculous claims of vintage cigarette ads and the current refusal of Newsweek to even accept tobacco ads.

When I first read the article I was thinking about how I wanted to take a deeper look at the overall advertising today and compare it to the role of advertising in society in the 1960’s in terms of volume and the power of influence.

For some reason, I had fixated on how the ad pages in Newsweek had dropped in recent years, but how the article seemed to allude that a return to this advertising design would improve those sales:

“Ad pages at Newsweek dropped 16.8% in 2011, but its fortunes seemed to improve after Ms. Brown’s March 14 redesign. Ad pages in the first quarter were down 30.8% from the year-earlier period, then dropped 24.5% in the second quarter, 10% in the third and 3.6% in the fourth, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. Newsweek said its December ad pages were up 15% from December 2010.…”

Now, I’m pretty sure that people will truly enjoy this special retro Newsweek issue. It will appeal to a wide audience: fans of Mad Men, advertising folks, retro peeps, etc, but one special issue, even an uber cool Mad Man Issue, cannot bring us back to those full on glory days of advertisements.  I had figured on pulling up some numbers of things like impressions and advertorial bombardment to show how maybe ads were still working as hard, but now we just have so many more of them.

American Culture Obsessed with MORE

The way it plays out in my head; back in the 1960’s there was just so much less. I’m old enough to remember when each house only had one phone that was, gasp, shared by five people. And I recall with great clarity when there were only a handful of TV stations ( 2, 4, 5 , 7, 9 ,11 and 13 on Long Island most of my childhood).  It doesn’t seem that long ago that  I had half a dozen close friends that I knew what was happening with and now I’m connected with thousands of people and I forget who or what is considered a friend! Everyone listened to one of three news stations or read the papers to find out what was happening in the world and what was on sale the upcoming week. There was really a limited amount of information and that information was controlled, often by those in marketing and advertising.

Now, there is just MORE of everything and it is controlled by everyone! Everyone has their own phone, my cable clicker goes over 1,000, I see updates from people who I have never met in my life, for every “fact” I hear I can find another person who claims the opposite and has a blog to support it, and there are ads on EVERYWHERE.

“From ’64 to ’69, Newsweek had this super-slick, dead-simple modern look to it,” said Dirk Barnett, creative director at Newsweek Daily Beast. “The ads were in color. For the most part, everything else was in black and white with thin, red lines.”

In many ways the description of the look says much more that provides an insight to the design of the day. I have emphasized the SIMPLE part; yes everything was simpler, wasn’t it? It only makes sense; back in the 60’s with so few true influencers informing people of what was happening, the people who create these ads had so much more power. Each advertisement carried so much more weight and had so much more thought behind it.  Each advertisement had to have wide spread appeal rather than having the giant hand of Google and our social networks to personalize each advertisement to fit your needs and think for you.  We didn’t search for things; we had them handed to us on the silver platter that is the “The AD” and you liked it simply because there was nothing else to compare it to. And God forbid, if you found that the ad offended you, the consumer had no voice to complain. The best you could do was to write a letter and send it off to some faceless programmer.

Mad Men and the Golden Age of Advertising

When I hear people wax philosophical over the “Golden Age of Advertising”; I can’t help but to think “Ah, because you were the Gods then who controlled how people think. No wonder you miss it.” This article makes me think, no matter how great this special Newsweek is, we cannot return to being Gods again.  It’s impossible since now, all you need is a Google AdWords account and every Joe on the street can be an advertiser. Every person who likes something on Facebook is instantly a promoter. Give them a WordPress blog and a nine year old is a publisher. So the design might become simple, the lines might be precise, but the method of deliver is what has really changed.  That power has been lost and no matter how cool the ads are, that control is not coming back.

When Social Media Collaboration Is the Culture

But I don’t think that is what Newsweek is actually doing. I don’t see them as trying to revive a Golden Age that has long since tarnished and I don’t see them as trying to get the control back. And I didn’t get that until after I started to read the article’s comments.

Now granted there is a whole slew of both positive and negative commentary.  There is the appreciation for the upcoming retro look, the excitement of those who have similar works, a request for a roll back priced magazine, and some confused folks who seemed to think that “retro” applied to more than the style, but also thought that old stereotypes in advertising would return as well. Is it always about race?  However, it was from the expected complaint “Does anyone else see something wrong with this picture.. that a major news magazine is going to pay homage to a TV show” and some overall agreement that really hit me as the real statement.

Social Media Collaboration Changes Cultural Values

This is marketing today and its influence on our society. Not that it’s retro. Not that a TV show is being highlighted in a news publication. Not that it will be cleaner and more precise. What makes the statement IS the act of collaboration itself.  We have entered the age of Social Media and that mentality has not only changed advertising and marketing and has not only given more power to the consumer; it has blurred the lines between the age old cornerstones of entrenched establishments like Newsweek. This social age is about sharing. It is about opening our arms to what is different and opposite or even a competitor in order to make our own foundations stronger. It is about making connections and partnerships to reach mutually beneficial goals.  What we see is a collaboration between news and entertainment; two opposed forces working together to create something that will get attention.

“Newsweek was very much on the cultural forefront at the time of the show,”

Newsweek is on the forefront again by showing that when two great forces come together, even greater things happen.   It’s the new normal.