In season four of Mad Men, the advertising agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce loses its biggest account. Lucky Strike cigarettes decides to take their business elsewhere, leaving SCDP in a very bad place. Lucky Strike brought in 70% of their billings. A few days later, Don Draper drafts a letter and has it printed on a full-page in The New York Times. His partners find out only when they open the paper that morning. The letter reads:

20110405_Why-im-quitting-tobaccoWhy I’m quitting Tobacco.

Recently my advertising agency ended a long relationship with Lucky Strike cigarettes

And I’m relieved.

For over 25 years we devoted ourselves to peddling a product for which good work is irrelevant, because people can’t stop themselves from buying it. A product that never improves, that causes illness, and makes people unhappy.

But there was money in it. A lot of money.

In fact, our entire business depended on it. We knew it wasn’t good for us, but we couldn’t stop.

And then, when Lucky Strike moved their business elsewhere, I realized, here was my chance to be someone who could sleep at night, because I know what I’m selling doesn’t kill my customers.

So as of today, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce will no longer take tobacco accounts. We know it’s going to be hard.

If you’re interested in cigarette work, here’s a list of agencies that do it well: BBDO, Leo Burnett, McCann Erickson, Cutler Gleason & Chaough, and Benton & Bowles.

As for us, we welcome all other business because we’re certain that our best work is still ahead of us.

Is Draper really taking an ethical stance, or simply using a bad situation to generate positive buzz for his firm? Likely both. I don’t believe that it’s only an ethical stand, but I’m not sure how much of the letter is born of sheer pragmatism.

His letter reminded me of a similar stance/ad, but this one wasn’t fiction.

In the late 1960s, Time magazine invited ad agencies to enter a contest. Time would choose the best ad created in the public interest. Talk about nebulous. Bob Levenson, of DDB, submitted Do This or Die:

20110405_do-this-or-dieDO THIS OR DIE.

Is this ad some kind of trick?

No. But it could have been.

And at exactly that point rests a do or die decision for American business.

We in advertising, together with our clients, have all the power and skill to trick people. Or so we think.

But we’re wrong. We can’t fool any of the people any of the time.

There is indeed a twelve-year-old mentality in this country; every six-year-old has one.

We are a nation of smart people.

And most smart people ignore most advertising because most advertising ignores smart people.

Instead we talk to each other.

We debate endlessly about the medium and the message. Nonsense. In advertising, the message itself is the message.

A blank page and a blank television screen are one and the same.

And above all, the messages we put on those pages and on those television screens must be the truth. For if we play tricks with the truth, we die.

Now. The other side of the coin.

Telling the truth about a product demands a product that’s worth telling the truth about.

Sadly, so many products aren’t.

So many products don’t do anything better. Or anything different. So many don’t work quite right. Or don’t last. Or simply don’t matter.

If we also play this trick, we also die. Because advertising only helps a bad product fail faster.

No donkey chases the carrot forever. He catches on. And quits.

That’s the lesson to remember.

Unless we do, we die.

Unless we change, the tidal wave of consumer indifference will wallop into the mountain of advertising and manufacturing drivel.

That day we die.

We’ll die in our marketplace. On our shelves. In our gleaming packages of empty promises.

Not with a bang. Not with a whimper.

But by our own skilled hands.


Levenson won the contest for DDB.

I like that the Mad Men writers do their research. Not only are they willing to use advertising history to drive their stories, but they also include it in the landscape their characters inhabit. For example, Volkswagen’s landmark Think Small and Lemon ads not only appear in Mad Men, but the characters briefly discuss them. And DDB created those VW ads.