How TV’s ‘Mad Men’ Hatched Heinz’s Latest Ad Campaign

Mad Men Pass the Heinz Ads
Courtesy of AMC

Heinz just tapped a pitch from a fictional ad agency to help devise a very real ad campaign.

The condiment-maker, part of the Kraft Heinz company, recently launched a small promotional salvo that makes use of an idea originally broached in a sixth-season episode of the AMC advertising drama “Mad Men.” The concept, greeted skeptically by the young Heinz account executives featured in the scripted show, is to run dynamic visuals of popular dishes like French fries or a cheeseburger accompanied by just a few words of copy: “Pass the Heinz.”

“It’s clean. It’s simple. And it’s tantalizingly incomplete,” says Don Draper, the convention-shattering creative executive (played by actor Jon Hamm ) who is the central character of the series, while introducing the concept. “It feels like half an ad,” quips one of Heinz clients on hand in the scene.

Just a few years after Draper’s idea surfaced in 2013, the real Heinz thinks the idea is a full one.  The company grew enamored of the idea that consumers might see the ads and envision any number of Heinz condiments – including mustard or BBQ sauce, said Nicole Kulwicki, the executive who oversees the Heinz brand. “I think the beauty of this campaign really comes from its simplicity,” she said in an interview. Heinz will run the ad on billboards in New York City’s Times Square and in print ads that run in the New York Post and Variety.

The journey from an idea in a TV script to an actual TV commercial is an unusual one, to be sure. TV has offered several series in which advertising plays a prominent role, ranging from “Bewitched,” which had character Darrin Stephens working at the McMann and Tate agency, to TNT’s “Trust Me” to CBS’ “The Crazy Ones” (which often cited actual ad brands as part of the plot). Few of the storylines generated by these programs go on to become actual campaigns.

In a playful nod to the collaboration, Heinz’ ad agency, David Miami, is sharing credit for its latest effort with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the central ad firm in “Mad Men.” When Anselmo Ramos, the chief creative officer and founder of David, considered the fictional Draper pitch, he thought “It’s just a bummer that the client didn’t approve that,” he recalled in an interview. “What if we just tried to make that happen today? He suggested the agency had an arrangement with Lionsgate, the studio behind the series’ production.

The Heinz effort has several things going for it in the modern era that it would not have in the time portrayed by “Mad Men.” In the show, executives worried the print ads being show to consumers wouldn’t make the connection between the food and the ketchup they hoped to sell. In 2017, Heinz can amplify the burger-and-fries images with social media and help drive the connection home. That same medium allows consumers who see the Heinz images to use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other outlets to ask friends and followers what they might think of the food  -and the sauce that should be poured atop it.

“The greatest thing you have working for you is not the photo you take or the picture you paint. It’s the imagination of the consumer,” Draper advised the Heinz executives on “Mad Men.” “If you can get into that space, your ad can run all day.”

Heinz has made an effort to broaden its association with consumers in recent months. The company ran a playful ad in CBS’ broadcast of Super Bowl 50 in which a fleet of dogs clad in hot dog buns hurtle toward a family of Heinz dressings, all to the strains of Harry Nilsson’s “Without You.” In January, the company launched a promotion advocating for “Smunday,” a holiday on the Monday after the Super Bowl – again in the service of getting consumers to consider its Big Game-ready accompaniments.

If this new ad takes off, the fictional Draper might be able to claim ownership of an actual commercial – a reversal from the last time viewers saw him. “Mad Men” aficionados might recall that in the series’ finale, Draper was spotted getting a creative spark that resulted (not really) in the creation of Coca-Cola’s iconic 1971 “Hilltop” ad showing young people crooning about world harmony.

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