Did MAD MEN Sneakily Hint At What’s To Come?

Who is Emerson Foote, and what does his life story mean for MAD MEN?

Spoilers for the latest episode of Mad Men follow.

This week’s Mad Men was another terrific episode, ratcheting up the tension as Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce seems to come apart at the seams. After having lost the Lucky Strike/American Tobacco account, which made up half of their billings, SCDP has been unable to find any new business, as companies want to wait and see if the agency can survive. Layoffs began and everything looked very bad. And then Don Draper did one of those ineffable Don Draper things, throwing a curveball into the whole situation - a curveball whose outcome still isn’t clear. But maybe looking at history - history that the show slyly alluded to last night - can help us figure out where this is all going.

Don took out a full page ad in the New York Times explaining that he was happy to be rid of Lucky Strike and that SCDP is out of the tobacco business for good. See, he says, tobacco is a ‘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. But there was money in it, a lot of money. In fact, our entire business depended on it. We knew it wasn’t good for us, but we couldn’t stop and then when Lucky Strike moved their business elsewhere I realized here was my chance to be someone who could sleep at night because I know what I’m selling doesn’t kill my customers, so as of today SCDP will no longer take tobacco accounts.’

This causes a major uproar, not just in SCDP but all across the advertising world and even in the media. When Don comes to the office the morning the letter is printed, Megan has a huge handful of calls that have come in. Among them, she says, is a call from a guy named Emerson Foote.

And here we come to the clue. See, Emerson Foote was a real guy. Emerson Foote was one of the titans of the advertising world in the middle 20th century. Emerson Foote had the Lucky Strike account, and he eventually took his own agency off of tobacco accounts. Don Draper has pulled an Emerson Foote.

Foote had been a vice president of McCann-Erickson (a name that will ring a bell for any Mad Men fan), and he resigned in 1964, just about a year before Don’s stunt. Foote had been a lifelong chain smoker and found himself with a crisis of conscience; long concerned about his own cancer risks, Foote couldn’t work for a company that peddled tobacco. He ended up working with the National Interagency Council on Smoking and Health, writing slogans and doing campaigns. One of the slogans he wrote for them was ‘Give to Conquer Cancer - Strike Back,’ a not so thinly veiled poke at Lucky Strike, a company he made iconic. Foote worked with the American Cancer Society, and he served on the 1964 President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke.

Foote didn’t take out an ad when he left behind tobacco advertising, but he did take out an ad a year later when he wanted back in the ad game. Foote placed an ad in Ad Age, asking for another chance. He got over 100 replies. Foote ended up coming on board a small agency that had been crippled by a scandal and fine for false advertising - the first advertising agency to be held accountable for what it claimed. Foote took the struggling agency and turned it around.

Foote remained a tireless crusader against tobacco, and in the 70s supported a movement to have tobacco advertising banned. “I am always amused,” he said, “by the suggestion that advertising, a function that has been shown to increase consumption of virtually every other product, somehow miraculously fails to work for tobacco products.”

Like Don Draper, Foote came from humble beginnings - a small town in Alabama, and small time jobs that included working at an auto dealership. Foote’s much older than Don - he was in advertising before Draper was even born - but as a major figure in creative, Foote seems to have influenced the character of Don Draper in no small way.

So whatever happened to Emerson Foote? He died in 1992, aged 85. I don’t know that Don Draper will make it that long, but other elements of Foote’s story seem likely to pop up in Mad Men. SCDP has already been approached by the American Cancer Society; might Don Draper end up writing that ‘Strike Back’ slogan? Could Don’s move towards personal rehabilitation coincide with a period of public service? As the decade gets more political, it could be interesting to have Don himself getting a little political. And this could put him into contact with Henry Francis, Betty’s dull new husband.

Even if none of that is the case, I think that the Emerson Foote namedrop is a sign that things will get better at SCDP, although it may not be SCDP for long. In a 1967 profile of Foote, Time Magazine notes that the agency of Kastor Foote Hilton & Atherton has changed its name to just Emerson Foote, Inc. Maybe Don Draper, Inc is where SCDP is headed in the next season. Foote wasn’t just a legend, he was resilient, and he came back on top after being counted out in 1964. Somehow I think Don Draper will do the same. Thanks to Rian Johnson for linking to the Time Magazine piece mentioned above, starting this whole train of thought.