The Don Draper Experiment

Wherein the author attempts to come up with a commercial pitch while completely faced.

By Brian McManus
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 7, 2010

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And now, a toast to Al Swearengen of HBO’s gone-but-not-forgotten Deadwood. You, sir, were one of TV’s best-written drunks this side of The Simpson’s Barney. You were a ribald asshole, a cruel man quick with a clever line or a wonderful turn of phrase. Like that time you called that guy a fuckin’ cocksucker. Or that other time you called that other guy a fuckin’ Asian cocksucker.

You were heartless and ruthless, but most of all, you were always, 100 percent Major League Blotto. A man seldom seen without a stiff drink, you were never sloppy like Calamity Jane, with whom you shared a screen. You never soiled your pants like that guy on Mad Men.

Now, of course, the memory of Al Swearengen’s greatness has carted off to that Great Drunk Tank In the Sky. A new drunken wordsmith has replaced him in our collective consciousness: Don Draper.

The two characters share many traits. Both take what they want, when they want it, without regard to how it makes others feel. Both were the heads of their respective businesses. Swearengen was surrounded by prostitutes in the brothel he owned; Draper by secretaries he treats as his own personal harem. Both were drunks. Difference is, Al Swearengen’s work was the type you could reasonably believe a man could do while completely faced. Namely, he kicked much ass, intimidated with sheer, brute force. Such work might even be easier drunk.

Draper, on the other hand, as an ad man, has to overcome being half in the bag to write creative taglines for clients, to “keep banging [his] head against the wall and then it happens,” as he put it in last week’s episode.

It got me wondering, is it possible to come up with genius ad copy when absolutely hammered?

Years ago I sat down to watch an episode of Deadwood and matched Swearengen drink for drink. Afterward, I’d see if I was able to recite one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, peppered with the word “cocksucker,” which is basically what Deadwood’s dialogue was. Could a man drink that much and still stand, much less carry on the business of running a lawless South Dakota town? An hour and eight shots of Bulleit Bourbon later, I decided it wasn’t possible.

But my methodology was flawed. Because Swearengen’s drinking on the show takes place over the course of a day or two, and mine was much more compact. I kept this in mind in the Don Draper Experiment I ran last Wednesday.

The challenge: to drink Scotch for hours on end at the office, and at the end of the day come up with a tagline for a product.

I’ve worked a couple freelance ad campaigns in the past, for an agency in Philly called Big Smack. On one of them we rebranded the Biography channel into the younger, sleeker Bio. On another, I got nice and cozy with my sensitive side and came up with some copy to help launch OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network. Not too long ago, though, I turned down some work on a campaign for the Food Network’s new Cooking Channel, their much more instruction-based block of shows, because I was too busy with other things. (Something I contend is actually possible. My wife disagrees.)

So for this experiment I would come up with a tagline or four for the Cooking Channel job I wasn't able to take on then. This column in no way is an attempt to let them know I’m not too busy now, and available for work. (Except it totally is. Hi, guys!)

I bought a bottle of Glenlivet, and started drinking at noon. I didn’t stop for some six hours, sipping throughout the day. By 3 p.m. I was tipsy. By 4 p.m., I felt inspiration on the horizon. By 5, I took a turn for the worse. What little I had was garbage, and my face was a bit numb. I was struggling with words. But at 6, after banging my head against the wall, I broke through my cloud of drunkenness, and came up with a real winner.

Food Network presents Cooking Channel: Because we’re so goddamn sorry about that whole Guy Fieri thing.

Conclusion: Boom! Totally possible.

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