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Mad Men: The elusive power of luxury

AMC’s hit American period drama; Mad Men was an undisputable television titan during its heyday. Written by screenwriter Matthew Weiner, the show trafficked in nearly 4.7 million viewers during its peak and was met with widespread critical acclaim for its unique visual style, colourful cast of characters and clever integration of paid product placement. The show follows a handful of sharp suit executives who work at the ad agency Sterling Cooper on Madison Avenue. Over the course of the shows’ seven seasons, Don Draper, our male protagonist attempts to win over accounts with his proposed ad campaigns. Through intimate glances at his creative process the audience begins to understand the physiological impulses that motivate consumers and the marketing strategies that tap into these ‘desires’. Draper’s salesmanship often impresses the client, but he has less success with the big, luxury brands. Draper’s shortcomings with the department store Menken’s, the multinational Hotel company Hilton and the car company Jaguar serve as a treatise on the value, presentation and expectations of luxury brands.


Menken’s department store, Adapt or die

“A brands identity must evolve. How many brands have disappeared because they haven’t responded to that need?”

Gerald Mazzalovo and Michel Chevalier (2008)

Draper deals with his first luxury client in the series’ pilot titled Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. He is set to meet with Rachel Menken, the daughter and heiress to the Jewish-American department store, Menken’s. Faced with declining sales, Menken’s urgently needs to rethink its marketing strategy.

Location is key

Draper suggests a coupon and a spot during a daytime TV show to generate new business but Rachel isn’t convinced, she reminds Draper that her store is “60 years old and shares a wall with Tiffany’s”. The location of Menken’s is a significant detail, we are told that the department store sits on the corner of 5th Avenue and East 57th street. This just-so happens to be the same location as the luxury department store Bergdof Goodman, whom many viewers have speculated was the inspiration for the fictional Menken’s.

Fifth Avenue is home to a number of boutiques and designer outlets. Menken’s’ prime location is integral to the brands luxury image as “the prestige store location reinforces the core brand values” (Okonkwo, U. 2007, Luxury retail design and atmosphere. In: Luxury Fashion Branding, p. 79). Fifth Avenue is a major thoroughfare and therefore retail space in this exclusive shopping district offers Menken’s enormous foot-traffic and visibility while acting as “an extension of the brands personality” (Okonkwo, U. 2007, Luxury retail design and atmosphere. In: Luxury Fashion Branding, p. 80) . For this reason, the audience understands why Rachel is so reluctant to introduce a coupon or any marketing ploy that might cheapen the brand’s overall image. If they lower prices with coupons or a limited-time sale they begin to lose part of the stores’ luxury appeal, after-all designers like Hermes have proven that artificially inflating the price of goods “creates an aura of luxury, exclusivity or higher quality” while also “raising customer curiosity” (Analysis on the Marketing Strategy of Hermes, Yihan Wang, p. 269). Draper changes tactics and asks Rachel who Menken’s target demographic is, she explains that they’re “not interested in housewives, [she] want[s] … people who don’t care about coupons … people are coming to the store because it is expensive.” Rachel’s attitude here is indicative of a fundamental shift in American post-war society, the average consumer had much more disposable income to spare and there was an increasing “desire to buy things based on feeling rather than reason” (Dykes, Dave, P. 2016, Product Placement in Mad Men, p. 4).

Mind the competition

The fact that Menken’s is adjacent to the famous jewellery store Tiffany’s’ is no coincidence. Weiner here is almost certainly anticipating the release of the hit movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). This film, based on Truman Capote’s best-selling novella, would prove to be a pop culture sensation and the brand would capitalise on its success, even opening The Blue Box Café at their flagship store in 2017 so that customers could actually enjoy a breakfast at Tiffany’s. In the films’ iconic opening sequence we are introduced to Holly Golighty (Audrey Hepburn) window shopping outside Tiffany’s Fifth Avenue store in her form-fitting, black Givenchy dress and Robert Scemama pearls. Hepburn is the spitting image of sophistication with her classic silhouette and designer accessories, but the character of Holly represents a new kind of woman that emerged in the 60s. Far from an ordinary domestic housewife, she deserts her husband and begins a new life in the big city. Holly proves to be assertive and financially independent, precisely the kind of customer Rachel wants for the new Menken’s. Perhaps then Menken’s proximity to Tiffany’s carries a greater significance, if Menken’s wants to remain culturally relevant they must learn to evolve with the times or otherwise be cannibalised by the encroaching competition.

The influence of Paris

Draper is adamant that no customer will visit Rachel’s store simply because the prices are more expensive, however she argues that “It works for CHANEL.” Rachel’s comments here give the audience pause for thought, just what makes a brand like CHANEL or Dior so special? This is a question that does not have a straightforward answer but Jackson argues that the essential ingredients are “exclusivity, premium prices, image and status which combine to make [designer brands] more desirable for reasons other than function” (Jackson, T. 2004, p.158). At this juncture Pete Campbell, Sterling Cooper’s Account Exec, chimes in by pointing out that Menken’s is no CHANEL, in his own words CHANEL is “French” and “continental”.

Pete’s interjection reveals a lot about how the average American consumer understands ‘luxury’, as Mark Tungate surmises ‘Paris has long been a byword for style” (Fashion brands: branding style from Armani to Zara, p. 7). For most people French fashion “immediately conjures up an image of a particular style in the mind” however American fashion does not illicit the same response. In fact, in the early part of the twentieth century “America depended on Europe …. for its fashion products and style guidelines, wealthy Americans routinely made trips across the Atlantic to Paris for dress fittings."

During the early 60s American fashion was still finding its footing while Parisian designers like CHANEL or Dior had already developed their own distinctive styles. Given the disparaging stereotypes about American fashion, a store like Menken’s cannot afford to leave a lukewarm impression on its customers. A fashion house should exude a quiet confidence and its marketing campaign must be sophisticated, not gaudy or overly exuberant. As Tungate convincingly argues, “the most effective marketing campaigns are carried out under the radar, their targets unaware of the ruse until it’s too late” (Tungate, M. 2005, Fashion brands: branding style from Armani to Zara, p. 248).

Minimalism wins

Returning to the drawing board, the group meets for a second time in S1 Ep 3 (Marriage of Figaro) but this time Sterling Cooper has studied Menken’s biggest competitors, these include the luxury department stores Saks, Henri Bendel and Bonwit Teller. Sterling Cooper identifies some key similarities between all three stores such as ‘boutique extras’ like a personal shopping service and designer collections. The stores are also noted for their “conspicuous lack of clutter” and Menken’s is encouraged to switch out their overstuffed displays for a “less is more philosophy”. This preference for minimalism has continued to be popular even with contemporary luxury brands today, in fact designer stores like Alexander Wang’s Tokyo boutique have taken this idea to the extreme. The purpose of scaled-back displays is to highlight the scarcity of the merchandise and to allow the customer to navigate the store with ease, crowded isles and stacked shelves only cause confusion.

Account Executive Ken Cosgrove also suggests that Menken’s removes the heads from their mannequins so that customers can imagine themselves wearing the clothes on display. In other words, it is important for the customer to feel that the clothes are uniquely suited to them rather than being off the rack.

This sentiment is echoed in a scene with Drapers’ secretary Peggy Olsen in S1, Ep 6 (Babylon). In this episode, Peggy refuses to try on Belle Jolie lipstick during a market research exercise because someone else had already taken her preferred shade. When asked why she wouldn’t settle for a different shade she responds that she’s very particular and only wants to try the colour she feels best compliments her features, arguing “I don’t think anyone wants to be one of a hundred colours in a box”. Put more simply, the customer should feel that luxury merchandise is an exclusive item rather than a mass-produced commodity.

All of Sterling Coopers’ suggested changes seem perfectly sensible and this time it appears as though they’ve understood the brief. But Rachel is quick to correct the ad men, her store already has all the proposed ‘boutique extras’ which leads her to believe that they have not actually visited her store. This humiliating oversight means that Draper is once again forced to rethink his strategy.

Throw it all out and start over

Rachel is invited for a third and final meeting, this time Draper unveils his plans for a spectacular 3-month renovation, replacing the outdated interiors and storefront with a new bright atrium, shiny chrome display cases and a ground-floor tearoom, all designed to appeal to modern sensibilities. The proposed skylight is supposed to transform the store from a dark shopfloor to a light, airy space. The audience can almost picture the beams of sunlight streaming in from above and dancing across the reflective surfaces of the new chrome display cases. Meanwhile, the complimentary champagne colour scheme creates a sense of uniformity across the store as well as establishing a distinctive visual identity for Menken’s, much like CHANEL’s iconic monochromatic branding.

The addition of a ground floor tea-room is supposed to create a more luxurious retail experience, Menken’s is advertised as a destination for an entire “day of indulgence”. Okonkwo calls this marketing strategy ‘retailment’. An example ‘retailment’ is the luxury department store Printemps located in Paris which opened its own rooftop café called Deli-Cieux offering panoramic views of the city. These kinds of amenities not only enrich the customers’ shopping experience but also “invite shoppers to linger, to wallow in luxury” (Okonkwo, U. 2007, Luxury retail design and atmosphere. In: Luxury Fashion Branding, p. 72), this way customers are likely to spend more.


Despite their initial hostility, Draper and Rachel develop an intimate relationship of the course of the first season. But all good things must come to an end and Draper’s affair with Rachel implodes. She terminates Menken’s professional relationship with Sterling Cooper and we never get to see the proposed renovations. According to the showrunner Mathew Weiner, Rachel Menken is “the one who got away” and holds the distinction of being the only love interest on the show to break things off with Draper. Don continues to fantasise about reuniting with Rachel and is plagued by cryptic dreams of his former lover in the final season (S7 Ep 8 Severance) but the two never get the opportunity to reconcile. Perhaps the estranged relationship between Don and Rachel is a comment on the consumers relationship with luxury goods, they have to feel elusory and aspirational.

One the best examples of this is Hermes’ desirable Birkin bags, only a limited number of these handbags are produced each year, this artificial scarcity coupled with premium pricing creates a unique luxury asset that everyone wants but only a few people will ever actually own. Rachel in her own words explains this idea in much more philosophical terms after a heated discussion about Israel with Draper. She argues that Israel for many people represents “more of an idea than a place”. Draper jokingly calls it a Utopia and Rachel explains the meaning behind the Greek word οὐ τόπος (utopos) is actually “the place that cannot be.” Rachel’s words cut through Draper’s sarcasm and get to the heart of the biggest selling point of luxury goods, they promise to help us realise the perfect versions of ourselves – but of course we know this is impossible.

Hilton: Redefining ‘luxury’

Drapers’ second major blunder dealing with luxury brands comes after a chance encounter with a gentleman who goes by the name ‘Connie’ at a country club in S3 Ep 3 titled My Old Kentucky Home. The two men share a drink and exchange anecdotes.

Sometime later, Draper is summoned to the presidential suit of the Waldorf Astoria. Upon arriving Don is greeted by the same man except this time he introduces himself as the hotelier Conrad Hilton.

Stunned and slightly starstruck, Draper apologises for not realising sooner, Hilton waves off his apology and asks for him to give his professional opinion on his upcoming ad campaign. The series of images features a cartoon mouse lugging around a packed suitcase glancing up at a Hilton hotel, Don immediately spots the problem with this ad for the brands luxury image, “I don’t think anybody wants to think about a mouse in a hotel.” Conrad agrees and enlists the help of Draper to develop an entirely new campaign.

The power of prestige

The cultural cachet of the Hilton brand is immediately obvious to the audience. In S3 Ep 7 titled Seven Twenty-Three, Don comes to work to discover a crowd of staff excitedly loitering outside his office and learns that Hilton is waiting for him inside. Rarely does the arrival of a client cause such a stir in the show and when Don opens the door he discovers Hilton sitting behind his desk. Hilton’s decision to sit in Draper’s chair is an unmistakable power play that quietly asserts the prestige of the Hilton brand. But Connie’s eccentricities are overlooked and he continues to toy with Don. Connie is even granted certain professional privileges, he is the only client to contact Don outside of work and in S3 Ep 9 (Wee Small Hours) he calls Don twice in the middle of the night, asking him to make an impromptu trip from his house in Ossining to midtown Manhattan for a drink.

Growing your brand

Connie is not shy about his plans for international expansion. In S3 Ep 7 when the office is swirling with rumours about Hilton’s visit, Account Exec Pete describes the hotel magnates’ appearance as “skinny, like a cowboy” and the cowboy comparisons don’t end there, later we see him at a meeting with Sterling Cooper’s creative team dressed in a suit and cowboy hat to match. At first, Connie’s identification with a cowboy might seem contradictory given that he is the eponymous figurehead of a luxury brand, but the comparison actually makes perfect sense. Much like the cowboys of the Wild West, Connie sees himself as a frontiersman with grand plans to colonise new territories by opening destinations around the globe, in fact he confides in Don during their late-night phone call that he wants Hiltons “all over the world, like missions. I want a Hilton on the moon.” (S3 Ep 9).

Connie’s ambitions for global domination come at a unique time in 20th Century history as there was an “increasing receptiveness to American lifestyle by the public in both London and Europe at large” (Kroes 2007, Bonin and de Goey 2009, Gassert 2009) which “stemmed from the economic differences between Europe [and America in the aftermath] … of the Second World War”. In other words, the world looked to America’s post-war economic boom as a beacon of hope. As Bonin and de Goey argue “looking at the USA [at that time] was like looking at the future.”

A new spin on ‘Luxury’

In S3 Ep 7 Hilton presents Don with an unpublished copy of his Time Magazine cover which tells us that the episode takes place shortly before July of 1963. The timing of Draper’s meeting with Hilton could not be more auspicious. The London Hilton on Park Lane would open in 1963 as the first branded American hotel chain in London, but Hilton understood that he would not be able to compete with the palatial grandeur of existing hotels like The Ritz or The Lanesborough. Instead, he sought to redefine luxury and comfort altogether by ushering in a “new era of modernity and ‘brand culture’” (Barbara Czyzewska, B. p. 4). Hiltons’ architect, William B. Tabler, replaced the neo-classical architecture of London’s most iconic hotels with the “clean but sometimes stark face of Corporate America” (Dunlap, David W, 2004). Connie’s hotels were sleek and inviting, offering all the same amenities without the added ostentation.

Draper distils down these ideas into his final campaign, he begins his pitch by explaining that “the average American experiences a level of luxury that belongs only to Kings in most of the world” but that “we’re not chauvinists, we just have expectations”. Then Draper lays out the premise of the campaign before revealing the punchy tagline:

“How do you say ice water in Italian? Hilton.

How do you say fresh towels in Farsi? Hilton.

How do you say hamburger in Japanese? Hilton.

Hilton. It’s the same in every language.”

“I expect the moon.”

For a moment the room sits in stunned silence and it seems as though this is the satisfying conclusion to the Hilton storyline. Don has delivered a campaign that extols all the virtues of Hilton’s hotels: convenience, dependability and above all luxury. But Connie is not convinced, he admits that Don’s work is “Good. But when I say I want the moon; I expect the moon”. So what went wrong? Why did Don’s pitch fall flat? The tepid reception to the Hilton presentation is as much a disappointment to Draper as it is the audience at home. But perhaps this was Weiner’s intention all along, it is not enough for Draper’s campaign to be catchy or amusing, in order to impress a brand like Hilton it must be remarkable. Later in S3 Ep 13 (Shut the Door, Have a Seat) the two men meet again, this time Connie quietly discloses to Don that he is moving his business elsewhere since Sterling Cooper has been acquired by another ad agency. Don is rightly furious having already invested so much time into Hilton’s campaign but Connie reminds him that “You wanted my account and you were lucky to get it”. While Connie’s comment stings, he is right. Brands like Hilton have built a reputation on delivering nothing short of exceptional customer service and so naturally they expect the best too. For this reason, Hilton slips through Draper’s fingers and he is left to lick his wounds.

Jaguar: Something beautiful you can ‘truly’ own

When life gives you ‘Lemons’

In the opening scene of S1 Ep 3 (Marriage of Fiagro) Don is riding a train on his morning commute to work. The audience’s eyes are naturally drawn to the magazine in his lap, Don turns the page and glances at a Volkswagen ad that shows a black and white photograph of the car with the word ‘Lemon.’ written below. This ad is a tongue and cheek acknowledgement of European cars’ reputation for being notoriously unreliable, earning the nickname ‘lemons.’. The Volkswagen ad does not attempt to disguise the cars limitations but rather shows a playful self-awareness. Fast-forward to S5 Ep 10 (Christmas Waltz) Pete Campbell announces to his colleagues that Sterling Cooper (now called SCDP) is in the running to represent Jaguar, straight away Senior Partner Bert Cooper jibes that ‘[Jaguars] are lemons. They never start”. Jaguar’s cars were “known for [their] dysfunctionality” (Dykes, Dave, P. 2016, Product Placement in Mad Men, pg. 36), in fact the show even makes a macabre joke about the cars’ unpredictability when Senior Partner, Lane Pryce’s suicide attempt is foiled because the car won’t start (S5 Ep 12 Commissions and Fees). Draper even admits to his wife Megan that “Jaguar is beautiful but unreliable…you basically have to own another car to go places” (S5 Ep 11 The Other Woman), as a consequence he is tasked with turning the cars shortcomings into a selling-point. Draper initially toys with the idea of marketing the Jaguar as a man’s ‘mistress’, while this would certainly satisfy Kemps’ definition of luxury as anything that is ‘beyond necessary’ (Kemp, 1998), he decides to change tact to avoid criticism.

Instead, Draper settles on the idea that the Jaguar represents the woman you want but can’t have, only now you actually can. All the practical considerations involved in buying a car like dependability, fuel mileage and maintenance costs are dismissed as an afterthought, Draper admonishes in his pitch to Jaguar that “we are taught to think that function is all that matters. But we have natural longing for this other thing…”. Reliable cars are written off as boring while the Jaguar promises the thrill of adventure. Understandably, at first glance this approach might not seem entirely logical, in any other luxury category an items unreliability would hamper sales, especially when fashion designers like Hermes and Louis Vuitton pride themselves on the quality craftsmanship of their merchandise. The difference is Jaguar’s cars satisfy certain experiential needs and their unpredictable nature only adds to the thrill-seekers experience.

“We’ve arrived.”

The Jaguar car as we’ve already established is the ultimate status symbol, Eunju Ko explains that the “consumption of luxury goods for status and values both allow a consumer to express and potentially enhance their identity to socially important others” (Ko, E. What is a luxury brand? A New Definition and Review of the Literature, p.g 5). We see cars used as an indicator of success in Draper’s own personal life. For instance in S2 Ep 7 titled The Gold Violin Draper visits a dealership and admires a polished, blue 1962 Coupe de ville. A salesman approaches Don and asks what car he currently drives, Draper tells the man that he owns a Dodge and he replies that “those are wonderful if you want to get somewhere, this is for when you’ve already arrived”. What showrunner Weiner is trying to comminate here is clear, the car is so much more than a means of transportation, it’s a symbol of wealth and status. To drive this point home further we are treated to a flashback of Draper’s younger self working as a salesman in a used car dealership, eagerly trying to close a deal with a father and son. Returning to present day, we understand how Don’s professional accomplishments have brought him to this full-circle moment. Draper is reluctant to commit to the purchase until he shares a conversation with his boss Roger Sterling and is reminded of the “finite nature of life”. Draper finally relents and buys the Cadillac before taking his family out on a summer picnic in their new car. The most poignant moment in the episode comes when their young daughter, Sally turns to her father and innocently asks, “are we rich?”. Don and Betty share a knowing glance but neither answer her question, however as the audience we understand that Draper has finally “arrived”. Don’s decision to upgrade his modest sedan to a Cadillac is an example of social signalling, conspicuous consumption of luxury items are a clear indication of a person’s status and social standing. Several seasons later in S5 Ep 10, Don delivers a rousing speech to the office in anticipation of their Jaguar pitch, telling them to “prepare to take a Great Leap Forward…When we land Jaguar, the world will know we’ve arrived.” Don’s message is clear, even for a corporation like SCDP Jaguar is a status symbol and securing a high-profile client like Jaguar would propel the agency into the limelight as one of the major players on Madison Avenue.

“Just out of reach.”

Unfortunately, the Jaguar storyline is twisted and tragic. It’s a story of debauchery, prostitution and suicide. The dishonest business practices of Jaguars’ dealership association overshadow Drapers’ creative talents. The race to win the Jaguar account finally culminates in S5 Ep 11 titled The Other Woman. The episode opens with the creative team at SCDP sat around a boardroom with a collage of images and suggested slogans canvased across the wall. Again, the characters are reminded of the status of the Jaguar brand, as a reward for their hard work the team are a served buffet of lobster on a silver platter specially delivered from the fine-dining restaurant The Palm. With the pressure mounting, Draper agonises over the perfect tagline until settling on ‘Jaguar. At last, something beautiful you can truly own’.

But the audience learns that the Dealer Manager, Herb Rennet, has only agreed to support SCDP’s bid to represent Jaguar if he can spend a night with the agency’s office manager, Joan Holloway. Presented with Rennet’s ultimatum and desperate not to jeopardise their chances, SCDP offers Joan a raise if she agrees to the arrangement. Upon hearing Rennet’s sleazy proposition, Draper races to Joan’s apartment in a last ditch-effort to convince her otherwise.

For a short time it appears as though Drapers’ persuasion has worked, but in a devastating turn of events it is revealed in a flashback sequence that Joan had already agreed to the plan and negotiated a promotion to partner. Showrunner Weiner explains that the episodes’ jumbled chronology is supposed to deliver a gut punch to the audience. Weiner states that “Don’s pitch was ruined by the fact that Joan had slept with this guy – so why would you even listen to it?”. Weiner almost certainly wants us to recognise the cruel irony in the Jaguar tagline, the car is supposed to be the ultimate status symbol – ‘Something beautiful you can truly own’, but in Draper’s case he can’t truly claim responsibility for winning the account and is instead robbed of his shining moment.

To make matters worse the episode ends with his prodigy, Peggy Olson, announcing her resignation from SCDP. She exchanges a tearful goodbye with Draper before collecting her things and leaving while the Kinks 1964 hit All Day and All Of the Night closes out the episode. Once again, the scene is laden with dramatic irony, despite being overlooked by her peers Peggy is the one rewarded for her hard work and she is scouted by another agency, similarly the Kinks song is a reminder of the sleepless nights Draper wasted wrestling with the perfect tagline for Jaguar. So why does Weiner steal this moment from Draper? Well, much like with Menken’s and Hilton the appeal of these luxury brands is they’re intangibility.

Don reiterates this same idea in his pitch to Jaguar, addressing a room of executives he explains that “When deep beauty is encountered, it arouses deep emotions … because it is by nature, unattainable.” He goes on to recall how when he took a Jaguar E-type for a test drive he “passed a 10-year-old boy … and I watched his eyes follow. He’d just seen that unattainable object speed by just out of reach”.

Mia Warren

Vice President

Cambridge University Fashion & Luxury Business Society

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