Advertisements: From Mad Men to Big Data

Posted on December 31, 2019 | Updated on December 18, 2020

The television show “Mad Men” is set primarily in the 1960s at a fictional advertising agency in New York City. Even though the show is one anyone in marketing should see, if you’ve not yet had a chance to catch up, it offers a slice of what advertisements were like in the middle part of the 20th century. Things have changed a lot over the years, but some marketing maxims hold true no matter what the decade.

You can apply a lot of lessons from “Mad Men” to modern advertising. Many writers have compared yesterday’s Mad Men to today’s Math Men, or those who love big data. How did we get from there to here, and is there a middle ground between digital and print advertisements?

Here is a look at how advertising has changed over time and why:

Mad Men Era

The 1950s and 1960s were a different time in America. Most homes had a television, but it was typically a single small black-and-white screen in one room of the house. There weren’t many channels available or many ways to reach people. Businesses often relied on print media to get their message across, and magazines were still delivered to the average home. Just as today, billboards graced every highway.

The main character in “Mad Men,” Don Draper, is the epitome of the times. He’s smart, hard and highly creative. Draper can think fast on his feet and shift his campaign strategies based on the client’s needs. People trusted companies to be honest with them for the most part, and a radio slot where a local business invited people to stop in was a smart marketing move.

In one episode of the show, Draper is in a meeting with client Lucky Strikes cigarettes. They are trying to figure out how to handle the health issues surrounding tobacco when they come up with the fact that their product is roasted. They tout it as a healthier option without coming right out and saying it’s good for you.

Obviously, companies weren’t always upfront and honest, but people expected them to be. Having to win over the public’s trust wasn’t an issue like it can be today.

Enter Technology

By the mid to late 1980s, technology began impacting our world in both positive and negative ways. Many items that we still use today or had a big impact on the world started in the 1980s, such as the Sony Walkman, a portable audiocassette player. People began buying VCRs to record television programs. The first chunky brick cellphones became popular thanks to Hollywood.

Advertisements shifted to showing how different gadgets were the new must-haves, and product placement became trendy thanks to movies like “E.T.” and “Back to the Future.”

The thing that may have had the biggest impact on advertising, though, was the introduction of cable TV, which began in August of 1981. People now had more channels to choose from and could record from them. They could also fast forward through the advertisements, and advertisers had to figure out new ways to reach what had once been a captive audience.

The Internet Age

Even though ARPANET adopted TCP/IP back in early 1983, it wasn’t until August 1991 that the World Wide Web became available to the public. At first, the internet was meant to serve as a place for online help and project documentation. The first browser platform was developed, and the first website uploaded. It wasn’t long before the first image was added, and the internet really began to take off.

By the mid-1990s, people were already using AOL and newsgroups to connect with each other around the world. The decision to make the web free and open has allowed developers to create software and for the platform to develop almost unchecked. What was once a novelty used by a handful of teenagers, the government and scientists is now a common occurrence in our everyday lives.

Big Data Era

We are now in what could be called the big data era of advertisements. Don Draper wouldn’t recognize this world. He would probably find that while his creativity would still be welcomed, he wouldn’t know how to analyze all the data thrown at him.

Marketers today are drowning in information. There are facts about who visits a website, demographics on the people on social media, the best time of day to publish a post and so much more. In fact, there are so many details, it can be difficult to sort them all out.

Advertisements today require a mathematician rather than a mad man to know what step to take next to get the word out. You have to reach people a certain number of times, and they have to be the exact target audience.

Being a Mad Man in the Digital Age

Probably one of the biggest things lacking in many advertisements today is creativity. Consumers see similar advertisements over and over again. The clickbait ads online that once worked so well have served to build distrust in the public. People are savvier than they’ve ever been in the history of advertising. They are onto the mad men tactics such as touting a cigarette’s tobacco as being roasted and inferring it is healthier, and they aren’t too happy with companies for tricking them.

Fortunately, there are some things you can do that still allow you to be creative while also taking advantage of the more advanced data available in a modern era.

1. Create Personas

Don Draper might not have had the big data and analytics that today’s firms have, but he knew people. He understood what made them tick and why they thought the way they did. You have an advantage over the characters in “Mad Men” and the marketers of yesterday because you have a ton of information at your fingertips.

Facebook alone compiles loads of data on its users. Each time a member clicks on a post to show they like it, joins a group or posts about a hobby, Facebook tracks that activity.

Look at all the big data you have, such as info on your current customers, who your competitors reach and who likes your posts on social media. Take the information and create buyer personas that represent your typical customers. One thing that will never go out of style and that you should continue from the 1960s world of advertising is understanding what drives people on a personal and emotional level.

2. Study the Competition

In the episode with the Lucky Strikes meeting, Draper talks about how all the other cigarette companies will try to defend themselves against reports about the health risks associated with tobacco. He has studied the competition and their approach, and he wants to do something different and unexpected. You must do the same thing with your advertisements.

Start by studying the competition. Where do they advertise, and what do they say? Next, figure out what your unique value proposition (UVP) is and why you’re different than them.

3. Be Different

Once you know what makes your brand unique, it is much easier to come up with advertisements that stand out and grab attention. Don’t be afraid to try something new. One of the advantages of online advertisements is that they cost less than traditional television, billboard or radio slots. You can test your ideas to see how they work without a big risk. The characters in the show “Mad Men” were fierce. If one tactic didn’t work, they tried something else.

Think about current trends and how you can incorporate them into your advertising. For example, there is a meme going around right now of a woman screaming and a smirking cat named Smudge responding to her. People now have LEGOs involved, and someone just released an image of a female figure and a cat that resembles the meme. The internet is all abuzz about it, and LEGO is getting all kinds of exposure. Tap into those current trends to gain the most momentum possible.

4. Be Honest

The characters in the television show aren’t always honest or trustworthy. This often backfires today when people get news in an instant via their social feeds. One example of this type of situation is the Fyre Festival fiasco.

The festival advertisements popped up all over social media by a lot of celebrities such as Kendall Jenner, Hailey Baldwin and other top supermodels. Tickets cost a fortune, with the promise of luxury accommodations. However, the organizers couldn’t deliver on their outlandish promises and people wound up sleeping on the ground in makeshift tents. The food was paltry. In the end, event organizer Billy McFarland was convicted of fraud and received six years of jail time. He has also been sued in civil court.

Keep an Eye on the Future

Even though some things in advertising haven’t changed, others have. One area that is going through a big shift right now is the number of cable/satellite television subscribers. eMarketer predicts that 20.8% of the U.S. population will cut the cord on pay-TV services by 2022. Services such as Netflix and Hulu, as well as online streaming, is the wave of the future. Advertisers would be wise to figure out ways of reaching customers who aren’t subscribers now before even more leave.

Other trends include more people using their small-screen devices to access the internet and the ever-growing Internet of Things (IoT). One of the smartest things you can do as a marketer is to watch technology and predict what the next big thing might be.

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About The Author

Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her exploring the outdoors with her husband and dog in their RV, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or curled up with a good book with her cats Gem and Cali.

You can find more of Eleanor's work at


  1. Asim Mehra on January 23, 2020 at 5:05 am

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