I was a late comer to Mad Men, AMC’s highly successful and critically acclaimed drama that airs on Sunday nights. It was only as the fifth season was underway and I started to see reports on the interwebs that Jaguar was playing heavily into their story line that my curiosity was piqued. When my wife suggested that we try it out on Netflix last summer, I agreed. And quickly became hooked.
POTENTIAL SPOILERS BELOW THE JUMP
In case you’ve managed to live under a rock for six years instead of four the way I did and have no idea what Mad Men is about, hit this link to AMC’s website and get caught up.
Cars figure heavily into the plots and subplots of the show and have since the very beginning. An ad agency is defined not only by the clients it already has, but also by the ones it doesn’t. The fictitious firm, Sterling- Cooper- Draper- Pryce, that the show is centered around is a small firm, working hard to grab clients and earn it’s place with the bigger firms. By far the most prized account for one of these small firms is an automotive advertising account.
Automotive accounts are pursued like the Holy Grail of advertising in the series. More than once one of the main characters has bemoaned the fact that SCDP has been playing in the advertising bush leagues, with clients that include regional airlines, baked beans, and various other food stuffs.
In season five the firm managed to land their first “car,” when they secured an account with Jaguar in return for pimping out one of the lead female characters to the head of the Jaguar dealers’ association. It was a loathsome move that tarnished what should have been the firm’s greatest triumph.
The opportunity to dump Jaguar finally presented itself in the May 5th episode. (If you haven’t watched it yet and ignored the other SPOILER ALERT, stop reading now.) Through a series of machinations by one of the founders of SCDP, the firm managed to score a chance to pitch a sales campaign for a new “top- secret” Chevrolet. The car, although not explicitly named as such at this point in the series, is the lowly Chevrolet Vega.*
Part of the fun of watching Mad Men is the knowledge that we, the viewing audience, have of the historical events that are right around the corner for the characters. In this case we know that history will judge the Vega (and it’s main competitors: the Ford Pinto and the AMC Gremlin) to be a total piece of crap, but we ‘re going to get to vicariously experience the hope and wonder of the characters as they work on selling the new car.
We don’t think of the Vega as a bright spot in automotive history, but at the time it was seen as cutting edge, from the Vert- A- Pac vertical rail shipping method, that turned to the cars on their noses to pack 30 units to a railcar instead of the standard 18, to the new Lordstown, OH assembly plant that was the most automated auto plant at the time. It was also extremely popular, selling over a million units in it’s first three years of production.Detroit was finally taking a growing piece of the automotive market, the sub- compact car, seriously after decades of leaving it to VW and Honda.
It’s also the perfect car for the fictitious advertising agency of SCDP to be hustling. So much of the show centers around the conflict between the brash, forward thinking ad men and their conservative, traditional minded clientele. Almost every pitch meeting shown on the show begins with the SCDP creative team pitching a daring, non- traditional approach to selling the client’s product, the client balking at the pitch, and the SCDP team either selling out and coming back with a boring alternative that meets the client’s expectations, convincing the client to take a chance, or telling the client to get bent and throwing away the account.
Since the Vega is new, one can expect that SCDP’s flair for edgy, provocative advertising would have a better chance of being accepted and used. But they’re also going to be confronting the largest, most conservative client that they’ve ever worked for. The conflict between the creative teams and Chevrolet’s management should make for a lot of drama.
Personally I’m waiting to view the Vega through the characters’ eyes. Like I said before, we know from history that the Vega is doomed by rust, labor strife at the new Lordstown plant, and numerous quality issues that will all but lock GM and the rest of Detroit out of the small car market for a generation. But on the show it’s 1968. The Vega is known as the XP-887. Things we take for granted like using a computer to design a car and then building it on an assembly line populated by robots is exciting and new, bursting with possibility.
It’s going to make for quite a show.
* I am 99% sure that the car has to be the Vega. During a scene in which one character was informing the creative team about the pitch, I think he referred to the secret car as the “XP-8 something something.” It’s an all- new car, designed by computer, and the SCDP staff talks about getting the chance to “name it.” The Vega is the only thing that fits.