What Would Don Draper Do? Advertising’s Pandemic Pivot


Mad Men © AMC

Worried about your hands getting red and chafed from so much washing? There’s a hand cream manufacturer that wants you to know it has the perfect product for that.

Can’t decide what to wear when you Zoom with your staff?  There’s a boutique that has just right outfit for the female exec working from home.

And so on. With an alacrity I hadn’t anticipated, today’s “Mad Men” are daily pushing out new ads tied to life as we now know it. This pandemic pivot in sales pitches highlights that we still have a robust creative sector hard at work to persuade us to buy things (whether we need them is a separate question). I think this onslaught of COVID-19 spurred ads speaks well to the energy and creativity of our economic engine. It most likely won’t be enough to save many retailers, but it may help some hang on.

I like to imagine Don Draper, drink in hand, sitting at home in front of a laptop zooming with Peggy Olson and the rest of the Sterling Cooper ad team. Peggy points out that women won’t be buying pantyhose when working from home but they want to know how to dye their own hair. Don points out that while Jaguars would be a hard sell these days, people can smoke in the privacy of their own homes and maybe there’s an angle to promote Lucky Strikes. Soon the slogans are flying and within days the new ads are everywhere.

The current generation of ad men and women are wasting no time gearing their pitches to the new normal. Some of the digital ads I’ve recently spotted included one from Habitat Clothes wanting me to “Stay Safe, Stay Cozy, Stay Warm” in its pants and tops. Anatomie tells me that “Behind every great CEO is a better Work-From-Home outfit.” And from Jones New York:
“Working from home? Be your own CEO in chic, yet comfortable styles that look good from your desk to the couch to the kitchen and back.”

Then there are the ads that address staying safe when we need to go out. Along with numerous ads for all kinds of masks, I came across one for the Safeguard Bucket Hat that promises to “Protect your eyes, mouth, and nose from viruses and bacteria” thanks to a plastic shield attached to its brim. For our hands when going out, Echo urges you to “Check out our new machine washable errand gloves.”

My most recent online purchases fall right in step with those ads – I ordered masks, leggings and toenail clippers for my dog (which I’m still hesitating to use, much to Daisy’s relief).

An article in Modern Retail shows how reworking ads to hit today’s changing consumer needs makes sense. But it can be a tricky balance. My Post Alley colleague Doug McLennan recently took a justified swipe at how some COVID-19 inspired ads risk sounding opportunistic or cynical.

Experts in marketing have been quick to propose pandemic strategies. The Harvard Business Review stresses the need for empathy and transparency, saying that “The nuances of brand voice are more delicate than ever.” 

Just as we consumers are figuring out the new landscape of our restricted lives, retailers also must adapt quickly to the new world, according to the Harvard Business Review: “This is a moment of peril for retail marketers, but one that also contains a kernel of opportunity to come to the other side of these choppy waters with a more loyal customer base and stronger business model. We recommend that you jump in, learn fast, and think long-term.”

It is also a moment of retail peril for consumers, that those of us privileged to be able to shop online will out of boredom or malaise be more susceptible to those Mad Men pitches promoting all the “must haves” for staying home and staying safe. Like dog toenail clippers perhaps. Or those bucket hats.

Linda Kramer Jenning
Linda Kramer Jenning
Linda Kramer Jenning is an independent journalist who moved to Bainbridge Island after several decades reporting from Washington, D.C. She taught journalism at Georgetown University and is former Washington editor of Glamour.


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