A Mad Men Postmortem: Don Draper's Story Ends Where Coca-Cola's Begins


Warning: spoilers ahead!

Last night’s series finale of Mad Men ended not with a song, as every one of the episodes has for seven seasons, but with a jingle. After Don’s emotional breakdown and final meditation at the Esalen Institute (though the famed “humanistic” retreat went unnamed in the show) we cut from his placid smile to this Coca-Cola ad from 1971:

It answers one of Peggy’s last questions to him when he calls from the institute, distraught: “But Don, don’t you want to work on Coke?” He doesn’t answer during the phone call, and we never see him leave the retreat, where we assume he’s found some sort of inner peace and reconciliation, but the final jingle indicates that Don rounded up that inner peace and took it back to New York to do what he does best: sell products.

It’s fitting the show ended here. Don went west only to return home, to the world of advertising. But was there evolution? Did anything change in Don’s world during his “on the road” vision quest? A more pertinent question for us: did anything change in the world of advertising?

While Don Draper never sold cynicism, the Coke ad is absolutely the most open-hearted and inclusive ad he ostensibly wrote during the show (though its true origin story is here.) By the end of the show, Don has found and touched his own inner humanity, making him the perfect creative for the big white whale of Coca-Cola, whose big ad spots have always sold not only the product, but the idea that a Coke could connect you to other people, yourself, and the world. Don found his humanity so he could sell Coke’s.

Coca-Cola has never faltered branding themselves with this sense of optimism. At this year’s Super Bowl, their Twitter handled auto-responded to every tweet that mentioned them or the #MakeItHappy hashtag by transforming the tweet into a “happy visualization.” This is a remarkable feat in an era of rampant cyberbullying and trolling, and also consistent with the message of the 1971 ad: the world can be cruel, but a Coke can make it better.   

A similar strategy is clear in its “Share a Coke” campaign, where the bottles come emblazoned with your name or the name of the person you’d like to share the beverage with. The thinking behind this campaign is genius: simply by virtue of holding a named Coca-Cola in your hand, you exist. Your friends exist.

And Don, recognizing his own primal sadness in the story Leonard shared during the Esalen workshop, realizes that that’s all anyone really wants from anything.  To have the fridge open on them, to stand in the light, to be chosen, to be consumed, to be seen.

So, while there are likely many thinkpieces this morning on the virtues (or lack of) in last night’s finale, from an advertising point of view, this ending makes perfect sense. Can you think of a better ad the show could have ended on? A more fitting client? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and in the meantime, open the fridge and grab a Coke. This one’s on me. 

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