Jul 162013


In March 1960, in the very first episode of Mad Men, Don Draper articulated what he considered the meta-message to the consumer viewing any successful ad: “reassurance that whatever you’re doing, it’s okay. You are okay.” In other words, he is the audience, he imagines himself marketing products to people not all that different from himself in terms of socioeconomic status, aspirations, and basic emotional responses to things. By the time Ted Chaough interviews Peggy in The Other Woman, it’s evident that she’s taken Don’s you-are-the-customer philosophy as her own, and Ted (sincerely or not) tells her he’s impressed by this: “I looked at your book and I saw somebody who was writing like every product was for them. No clichés, no homilies, no formula.” But Michael Ginsberg, in the same episode, conveys an attitude that could be seen as its polar opposite, one we haven’t heard spoken out loud by any advertising copywriter on this show before, even if they secretly thought it.

Right before Michael delivers his winning Jaguar pitch to Don, he prefaces it with, “I kept imagining the asshole who’s going to want this car.” Yes, they’ve pitched products before that they knew were of dubious value (Relaxicizer, Jai Alai), or might even be dangerous (Lucky Strikes), and were open about the fact that, to a certain degree, they would have to rely on customer gullibility to sell them. But coming from Michael, there’s an extra layer of resentment present in this statement; we know from his stained clothing and the squalid apartment in which he lives with his father that he has never had much money, and would live considerably beneath his means even if he did, and can’t imagine in a million years ever being the asshole who’s going to want that car. Don and Peggy might see themselves as outsiders to a certain degree; there’s an element of yearning to belong that infuses their work. But Michael goes a step beyond that; he’s pitching his products to an audience who he knows will never accept him as one of their own, and of whom he is openly contemptuous.

But Michael does know one thing about these alpha men he pictures in his mind: despite their considerable income, they are fundamentally insecure, and long to capture something that’s eluding their grasp in order to feel better about themselves. In that regard, they are not all that different from Ginsberg, who is inspired to come up with his tag line by seeing Megan breeze into the office to visit Don, seemingly with total freedom to do what she wants, when she wants. Women talk back; merchandise doesn’t. That part of being an affluent man, he can identify with. But Michael is also someone who is going to want to fill that gap in his life with something more than merchandise; even after seven months of SCDP employment, he still hasn’t upgraded his tattered and ill-matched wardrobe any. Can a man who prides himself on not buying stuff be the same one who pioneers the idea of “the customer is always wrong, but we’ll take their money anyway”?


  7 Responses to “Imagining the ******* Who’s Going to Want This Car: The Michael Ginsberg Ad Copy Revolution”

  1. Ginsberg might see the people he is selling to as the enemy, or at least as stupid, selfish people, but he is smart enough to see things from their point of view and create ads that take advantage of that. He’s very perceptive, if too emotional at times.

  2. But Michael goes a step beyond that; he’s pitching his products to an audience who he knows will never accept him as one of their own, and of whom he is openly contemptuous.

    Interesting post. Don (for the most part) hasn’t seemed contemptuous of his audience–I say “for the most part” because his line about “their Dorothea Lange faces” did sound a little contemptuous (and I may be forgetting about other instances too). But, Rachel Menken did see Don as someone who–like herself–looked at the world from outside in. Watching how other people lived their lives.

    In that respect, maybe Don and Michael have a little bit in common.

  3. It’s worth noting that Ginsberg’s inspiration for this sentiment comes from watching Megan breeze into the office to visit Don before an audition. “She just comes and goes as she pleases,” he muses, peering out the conference room glass after her, while the other writers watch Megan’s friend Julia lolling on the conference table.

    Which is to say, it isn’t some random rich, powerful man Michael Ginsberg is imagining as the asshole customer; he’s imagining Don as the asshole customer, observing what he thinks Don’s life is missing, and extrapolating from there.

    It’s fascinating — and probably revealing — that Michael Ginsberg can see there’s an emptiness at the heart of Don Draper’s life but be so very wrong about what it is.

  4. Michael Ginsberg is what would have happened if The Secret Life of Walter Mitty had been written by Truman Capote instead of James Thurber.

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