Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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Oct. 23, 2008, 1 p.m.

‘Mad Men’ ads keep you on your couch

Those of you who, like me, are borderline obsessed with AMC’s Mad Men will enjoy this lengthy interview with the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner. But of note to folks in the content business is this exchange:

Q. Now that we’re in season two, is it difficult to deliver more of those interesting factoids during each commercial break?

A. I have nothing to do with those. As the sponsors (come in), whatever sponsors they get, it’s their problem. I love them. They are Tivo stoppers. It was a really brilliant idea; I had nothing to do with them. If it was up to me I would do things the way they did in 1960. I would have a single sponsor doing the whole show and tie them to the show. But because this is the way it’s done and they’re selling minutes, I think it’s the most palatable and innovative thing I’ve seen, especially considering what’s happened with TV advertising. I’ve been very impressed by it. I think it looks like something Don Draper would have thought of.

They’re talking about what AMC calls, gratingly enough, Mad-vertising. At the start of each commercial break, instead of going straight to an ad, there’s a five-second title card displaying some fact about the advertiser — typically, a fact about its past or present advertising campaigns. Sample title cards: “Prescription drugs could not be advertised on television in the United States until 1997,” just before a drug ad. Or “Heineken was the first imported beer in America after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933,” just before (you guessed it) a Heineken ad.

It grabs you for an instant, just at the moment when you’re doing to get a drink or head to the bathroom. And it makes you pay at least a little attention to the ad. As an AMC exec told Variety, “That’s AMC’s ‘dirty little secret’…You’re not blowing through the commercial. You’re thinking, ‘What’s going on here?’ “

Commenter Daniel put it well over at this blog post:

They do this neat, ‘tivo-proof” type of commercial billboard before most commercials…I bite. Originally, I paused because I think that maybe the show is coming back — a la traditional billboard/bumper. Now I am conditioned to stop, because I am getting some value in exchange — I get ad history/trivia, facts, music/artists in spots, etc…All good. I watch more, stay through commercial breaks, AND I have a high recall of the ads.

With newspapers having lost their traditional near-monopoly over certain kinds of advertising, media that can effectively draw and retain audience attention will be rewarded over the easy-to-ignore. The Mad Men method — give something of value in coordination with the ad — seems like a promising idea for TV. What can print or web sites do to innovate along similar lines?

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Oct. 23, 2008, 1 p.m.
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