Will 'Mad Men' disappear in puff of smoke?
"Mad Men" wraps up another season Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC — but will it disappear in a puff of smoke?
The Emmy Award-winning drama found ad man Don Draper backed into a tight corner on last week's episode.
With Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce confronting the loss of a huge cigarette account, Draper (Jon Hamm) changes the conversation (albeit while infuriating his colleagues) by taking out a full page ad swearing off cigarettes.
In his manifesto entitled "Why I'm Quitting Tobacco," Draper declared: "For over 25 years, we devoted ourselves to peddling product for which good work is irrelevant, because people can't stop themselves from buying it. A product that never improves, causes illness, and makes people unhappy."
He went on to say that since the account — iconic cigarette brand Lucky Strike — had moved its business elsewhere, he could finally sleep at night, "because I know what I'm selling doesn't kill my customers."
Butting out of the cigarette business had to seem like career suicide in the ad world of 1964, which is when season four of "Mad Men" is set. Cigarette advertising was a huge source of revenue for TV networks in the early days of television right through to the end of the '60s.
There were plenty of signs, however, that the cigarette boom was about to go bust. More and more studies were drawing a connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. By 1966, warning labels were on the side of cigarette packages. In 1967, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission required that television stations air anti-smoking ads — a move that would have made Draper look like a genius.
Eventually, cigarette advertising was banned from television altogether. The final cigarette ad on an American network, for Virginia Slims, was shown on "The Tonight Show" at 11:59 p.m. on Jan. 1, 1971 . Canadian networks pulled out of the cigarette advertising business even earlier.
The networks braced themselves for a giant hit once the cigarette ban went into effect, but the millions that poured in to anti-smoking campaigns took some of the sting out of that transition.
Still, Draper's ballsy letter, coming in 1964, leaves millions of fictional tobacco ad dollars on the table. Many TV programs were still being aggressively sponsored by cigarette companies. Lucky Strike sponsored shows dating back to radio and were associated with comedian Jack Benny for decades.
Popular shows like "I Love Lucy," "The Beverly Hillbillies," "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and even "The Flintstones" had tobacco companies as major sponsors. (You can find a clip of cartoon cavemen Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble smoking Winston cigarettes on YouTube.)
Many individual TV stars were hired as cigarette pitchmen in the '60s. Steve McQueen did ads for the sponsor of his show, "Wanted, Dead or Alive," Viceroy cigarettes. Irene Ryan and Bea Benaderet did cigarette ads in character on "The Beverly Hillbillies." All three, as it happened, died of lung cancer, as did big on-air smokers like CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, Walt Disney and Yul Brynner, who made a famous and chilling anti-smoking ad that was released after his death.
The culture of tobacco was so pervasive it bedevils programmers today. GSN, which shows vintage game shows, had to leave popular series like "To Tell The Truth" and "I've Got a Secret" in the vault or risk violating FCC rules due to cigarette advertising signage on the walls and desks of the panel show sets. Ted Turner ordered all references to smoking edited out of vintage "Tom & Jerry" and "Flintstones" cartoons that air on his Cartoon Network.
"Mad Men" itself has been criticized for glamorizing smoking (although, if you talk to any cast member, there is no glamour in puffing the foul-tasting vegetable cigarettes they use in smoking scenes on the show).
It was ad men like Don Draper who made cigarettes such a prominent part of pop culture.
Popular slogans like, "Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch!" were dreamed up at real ad agencies like BBDO. Leo Burnett was where the Marlboro Man was conceived. These were multi-million-dollar accounts and the creative teams that came up with them were the toast of Madison Avenue.
There is some actual historic precedent for Draper butting out of the cigarette business. One New York-based ad agency, Benton & Bowles, took a stand against cigarette advertising and later handled anti-smoking campaigns for the American Cancer Society.
There's a suggestion that Draper's firm SCDP may be moving in that same direction heading into Sunday's season finale, but, as usual, details about the episode are as guarded as a real ad agency account.
The only bit of official information from AMC on Sunday’s finale, entitled, "Tomorrowland," is that "an opportunity arises for Don and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss)."
One thing we can probably safely assume — there will not be any cigarette ads.
Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.