'Mad Men' Gets Publicity It Couldn't Buy

by , Feb 14, 2012, 3:14 PM
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For the past few weeks, Don Draper’s iconic free fall has dominated a big chunk of New York’s Grand Central Terminal. The image of the “Mad Men” lead dropping uncontrollably -- symbolizing his unending conflicts -- covers billboards AMC has purchased to promote the March 25 series return.

Yet, just a few blocks away, there’s publicity the network couldn’t buy. A thank you note from AMC presumably is in the mail to Billy Parrott, a managing librarian at the New York Public Library’s art and picture collection.

A devoted fan and “Mad Men” encyclopedia, Parrott has devoted two window displays to the series at the Mid-Manhattan branch, where 5th Avenue foot traffic is an unending stream. The windows aren’t large – maybe slightly wider than a Draper suit – but are engrossing.

If marketers are searching for grass roots-type authenticity, Parrott has authored the embodiment. Looking partly to emulate offices at Sterling Cooper Draper Price -- the struggling agency in the show -- he began mining the library's resources last fall. There's been no communication with AMC.

The displays – which will probably stay up through the end of the month -- don’t scream “Mad Men.” Each window has a Draper portrait in black and white and this being a library, one has several recent books about the show.

Parrott of course enjoys “Mad Men” because of the story lines and superb character development. But, he also appreciates the effort producer Matthew Weiner and colleagues undertake to stay true to the show's era -- down to the office furniture and restaurant offerings.

“It makes you think how much work they actually do with attention to detail,” Parrott said.

Each of the Parrott-designed windows offers similar meticulousness. Vintage print ads are tacked on the walls, with several directly linked to the show’s plots.

There’s one for the Kodak Carousel, an account Draper pitched after the 1961 product launch. Airline ads are a reference to Sterling Cooper dropping the Mohawk Airlines account in order to pursue the larger American Airlines business. And, several ads are for Lucky Strike, the account Draper’s agency lost at the end of last season, which was a devastating blow.

No “Mad Men’ display would be worth much without nods to the characters’ vices. So, there’s an ashtray with a finished cigarette. There are remnants of an affair – a pair of ladies’ shoes with a ruffled tie intertwined and cuff links to the side. And, multiple drained bottles of booze.

The ads come from the library’s collection, which was started in 1915 and has 1.2 million images. The shoes are on loan from Parrott’s wife. The Scotch and vodka?

“I helped empty the bottles, doing my part for the display,” Parrott said.

The windows aren’t Parrott’s first link with “Mad Men” on the job. In tweets and on a library blog, he’s offered up a reading list of actual books cited in the show.

Much has been made about libraries losing relevance in a Kindle-Internet age, so Parrott is hoping the buzz around “Mad Men” will help draw people inside. So, signs in his windows direct people to the third-floor collection for more vintage art.

Upstairs, there's an effort at interactivity. People are encouraged to drop a favorite quote or ad slogan from the show in a box reading: “Write it down (ideally on a cocktail napkin or the back of an envelope … ) and it might get included in the 5th Avenue ‘Mad Men’ window displays.”

(There are two entries so far.)

On Tuesday morning, Larry Grosgogeat, a Frenchman living in New York, was admiring the retro ads and whimsy in the windows, which are across from the historic main library.

“I’m very nostalgic,” he said. “I love this period because it was an era of growth and well-being and happiness. Also, women were starting to work.” (Not sure what the troubled Draper would say about the happiness part.)

Grosgogeat headed up to the third floor. He said “Mad Men” had been recommended to him by people in France and New York and he’s likely to tune in.

That looks to be a win for Parrott and AMC.

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