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Vox talks Mad Men: Imagine Don Draper selling microtargeted internet ads

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) wouldn't have the first idea what to do with Google Adsense.
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) wouldn't have the first idea what to do with Google Adsense.

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the previous episode over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by editor-in-chief Ezra Klein and foreign policy writer Amanda Taub.

Ezra Klein: Let me take your suggestion in another way, Todd, because we can make a time jump Mad Men can't. We know how Don Draper's advertising industry ends: instead of inventing the idea of love to sell nylons, it begins tracking people's internet usage to figure out whether they already know they need nylons.

Mad Men is about a certain kind of advertising: the kind of advertising that creates new wants rather than satisfies existing needs. The show takes its veneration of this kind of advertising to a meta level: Don's specific talent is selling new forms of advertising to advertisers. He takes people who want to be known for making slide projectors and convinces them they want to be known for making a time machine.

We tend to think of Mad Men as a nostalgia trip for the 1960s, but it's also a time machine back to a different era in both advertising and media. In the '60s, we didn't know, with any kind of fine-grained analytics, who was watching a given television show at what moment, or which kind of person tended to make it to page 23 of the Time magazine from the first week of February.

We didn't know who those people were, and so we didn't know what they wanted, much less what they needed. And if you don't know what someone wants or need, then it makes perfect sense to try to create new wants or needs. "If you don't like what they're saying, then change the conversation," Don says earlier in the series. Similarly, if you don't know what people are saying, then invent the conversation.

The internet changed all that. Advertisers — and the venues for advertising — know what's being said. Facebook knows how old you are, where you live, whom you love, where you vacation, what causes move you, what products your friends buy. Google knows what you were shopping for last night, last week, two minutes ago. Publishers know which articles you read, and whether you actually get to the end, and whether you actually read the piece or just scanned it. Advertisers know whether you saw their ad for a millisecond or a half-second or two seconds or not at all. They know if you clicked, and if you clicked, they know if you bought.

All this information changes the advertiser's calculus: the uncertain magic of brand advertising loses some of its allure — particularly online, when viewers can blow past your beautiful display in an instant. At the same time, the workmanlike approach of direct advertising gains a bit of luster: if you already know what people want, then it's easier to give them a bit of a push, to take them from wanting a new pair of eyeglasses to buying some stylish Warby Parkers.

But the big money isn't is direct advertising. It's in brand advertising. That's true for advertising agencies, which want grand canvases for transformative, Don Draper–like campaigns. It's true for publishers (like Vox!), who know that the particular experience they're trying to create for their audience can't match the brute scale and targeting that Facebook and Google can offer for direct advertising. And it's true for advertisers, because ultimately they want to build new wants, rather than just satisfy existing ones.

A lot of people see this kind of thing as a seedy question to consider, but much rests on getting it right. There's little shared knowledge in America that hasn't traditionally been supported by advertising. Advertising has been the business of news, and the business of television, and the business of radio, and the business of magazines.

Put aside books and movies (and in an era of product placement and pre-film ads, movies are only a partial exception, anyway), and an enormous amount of what we know together as a society comes because people like Don Draper have found the vehicles of that knowledge to be powerful conveyors of advertising. And this has, of course, continued into the internet age. The business of Google and Facebook and Twitter is advertising. It's a mind-bending thought experiment to try to imagine what our informational commons would look like if they were supported by subscription, rather than advertising.

Since starting Vox, I go to a lot of conferences where all kinds of people worry over the problem of making brand advertising work online. Everyone wants to figure out where Don Draper's campaigns fit in your browser — and, more to the point, on your phone. Everyone wants advertising that the audience might actually enjoy — like the ads in a print GQ or Cosmopolitan — rather than the kinds of ads that lead them to download ad-blocking software in frustration. No one has quite figured it out yet, though we're a helluva lot closer than we were five years ago.

For the media, the question isn't how Mad Men ends. It's how it begins again.

Read the recap. Come back tomorrow for Amanda's thoughts on the impending end.

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Next: Amanda Taub on the show's look at white male privilege

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