In the sixth season of Mad Men, Don Draper tries to sell Heinz on an unprecedented ad strategy. “It’s clean, it’s simple, and it’s tantalizingly incomplete,” he boasts to two skeptical-looking Heinz executives in a pitch meeting. The hat trick? Draper has left the iconic Heinz ketchup bottle out of the equation entirely, reasoning that the brand is so inextricably linked to the condiment that people will subconsciously fill in the blank. His clients are unconvinced: “It feels like half an ad,” one replies.
When Anselmo Ramos, the chief creative officer of the advertising agency David, rewatched the episode two years ago, he disagreed. “When you look at the creative idea, it’s so simple and powerful, it’s just timeless,” Ramos tells Co.Design. Heinz had been one of Ramos’ clients at David’s Miami office for a couple of years at that point, so he suggested that the company replicate the design of the ads and run the aborted campaign in real life. Real-life Heinz was sold.
Last weekend, the New York Post and Variety ran the three full-page ads exactly as they appeared in the show: a pile of fries, a hamburger and a piece of steak on a fork, all with the words “Pass the Heinz” running directly above the photo. The ads also went up in billboards across New York City and across social media. Ramos describes the process of bringing Draper’s pitch to life as a kind of reverse product placement strategy. Which brings up the question: What exactly are the rules for resurrecting a fictional ad campaign for a real company, then applying it in a real world context?
According to Nicole Kulwicki, head of brands at Heinz, the company’s role in the season six storyline was not product placement. While Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner has confirmed that some brands did pay for product placement during the show’s run (Heineken is one known case), other brands incorporated into the plot line—both in positive lights and a negative one—did not. Kulwicki says while Heinz didn’t pay for the spot, it was flattered to be featured when it aired in 2013. At the time, though, it didn’t occur to the company to try to use the ads themselves.
Ramos suggested it to them two years later, in 2015, and unlike the fictional Heinz executives, Kulwicki and her team liked the idea. In the show, Heinz approached Sterling Cooper Draper Price because it had recently added mustard and barbecue sauce but customers were still much more familiar with its ketchup—which Kulwicki says is still true today. Though she declined to share details of the agreement, Kulwicki says that Heinz contacted Lion’s Gate, which produces Mad Men, for permission to replicate the ads. Neither Ramos nor Kulwicki knows who physically designed the ads in the show (Lion’s Gate did not immediately respond to a request for comment). So without the original vector file, Ramos and his team staged a photo shoot and recreated the three ads as closely as possible, updating only the font to reflect the current Heinz brand guidelines. Heinz’s press release for the new campaign is rendered in typewriter type and credits both Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, as well as David. It claims that “The “Pass the Heinz” campaign, created by Don Draper, has been 50 years in the making, but it’s as timeless today as it was when it was first presented.”
The ads certainly capitalize on their association with Mad Men, but they also capitalize on the staying power of midcentury aesthetics. Midcentury modern furniture is still wildly popular, as is corporate identity design from the ’60s and ’70s. “It’s not just for Mad Men’s fans,” says Ramos. “Even if you haven’t seen the show, you get it.” Without the Mad Men reference, seeing a Heinz ad that looks like a nostalgic throwback to the classy heyday of big corporations doesn’t seem unusual.
I came across the ads on Instagram—not as a native ad, but because a friend had taken photos of the print ads and posted them. The ketchup is missing and so is any visual context that would suggest that this is an ad for Heinz in the year 2017, but I still found it selling. In the Mad Men episode, Draper tells Heinz, “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.” That rings true.