Mad Men: Ranking Don Draper’s 9 best pitches
It’s been 10 years since Mad Men premiered on AMC. In the last decade, we’ve never been able to forget the first time we saw Don Draper seal a deal — dreaming up “It’s toasted!” on the spot during a meeting with Lucky Strike executives — and in the last two years, we’ve never been able to stop thinking about what kind of breathtaking pitch he must have delivered to Coca-Cola after having the revelation, on a breezy California hilltop, that he’d like to buy the world a Coke.
In honor of 10 years of watching one of TV’s greatest, most troubled heroes doing what he does best, we’re counting down Don Draper’s most inspired moments in the SCDP conference room, spouting ad copy like sonnets. See which perfect pitch clinched the No. 1 spot, below.
9. Life cereal
(Season 4, Episode 6, “Waldorf Stories”)
Fresh off of winning a Clio Award, Don drunkenly stumbles into a meeting with Life cereal to pitch the campaign, “Eat Life by the Bowlful.” When the Life guys are unmoved by Don’s unfocused attempt to recapture the magic of his legendary Kodak Carousel pitch by delivering a few halfhearted lines about nostalgia, they ask him to come up with a new slogan. Ignoring Pete Campbell’s protestations, Don drunkenly insists on coming up with a new tagline on the spot and produces a few terrible ones; naturally, the unsophisticated businessmen seize on a stale cliché (“The cure for the common breakfast”) that Don accidentally stole from Danny Siegel (Danny Strong), a talentless young man desperate for a job at the agency. So not only does Don have to go forward with a bland campaign, now he has to hire a useless employee, too. Not his best moment, though admittedly a pretty funny one.
8. Heinz beans
(Season 5, Episode 7, “At the Codfish Ball”)
After learning from the Heinz (beans, not ketchup) rep’s wife in a restaurant bathroom that SCDP was about to get fired, Megan saves the day by prompting Don, upon returning to the table, to spontaneously pitch an idea she had come up with. The idea — one scene after another, in different eras, of a mother serving a child beans — is rather schmaltzy and the slogan, “Some things never change,” is just a cliché, but their artless tag-team delivery is impressive. Ultimately, they win the client back without ever having an awkward conversation.
7. Burger Chef
(Season 7, Episode 7, “Waterloo”)
To sell Burger Chef on “family supper,” Peggy appeals to the feeling of connectedness that lingers in the air the day after the whole world watched a man walk on the moon. “But that’s not a Don pitch!” you say, and right you are! But the scene opens with Don, at a spiritual and professional low point, stepping aside and effectively pitching his protégé as his stand-in. “I’m going to be bold and say that no one in the room knows more about the Burger Chef customer than Peggy Olson,” he says, calling her “uniquely qualified to craft this modern campaign.” It’s a persuasive endorsement — and a significant moment for one of the show’s most compelling relationships.
6. Hilton Hotels
(Season 3, Episode 9, “Wee Small Hours”)
This is an elegant ad campaign, and Don presents it with his usual intelligence and grounded charisma. Still, the client is unsatisfied. But it’s not Hilton’s rejection of the idea or of the actual pitch that hurts the most; Don wants the hotel founder’s approval for himself even more than he does for his work. He just didn’t know not to give Conrad Hilton a hamburger — in Japanese or not — if what he wants is the moon.
5. Lucky Strike
(Season 1, Episode 1, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”)
“It’s toasted” was inspired, sure, but it wasn’t the most groundbreaking of Don’s many ad campaigns, nor the most polished of his performances. But it was the pitch that started it all — the first time audiences saw Don’s genius at work. “This is the greatest advertising opportunity since the invention of cereal,” he tells a room full of people with no better ideas to sell cigarettes than to appeal to consumers’ death wish. “We have six identical companies making six identical products. We can say anything we want.” And so the greatest ad man basic cable has ever known was born.
(Season 5, Episode 11, “The Other Woman”)
One of the series’ most heart-wrenching plots is intertwined with one of Don’s best pitches. “Oh, this car — this thing, gentlemen — what price would we pay, what behavior would we forgive if they weren’t pretty, if they weren’t temperamental? If they weren’t beyond our reach, a little out of our control, would we love them like we do?” It’s a brilliant performance of a terribly sexist conceit, which stings all the more as the pitch is intercut with Joan, led to believe she has no other option, prostituting herself to a Jaguar executive in exchange for the contract — and a partnership. The whole scene is as disturbing as Don’s commercial rhetoric is seductive. “At last,” he concludes. “Something beautiful you can truly own.”
3. Heinz ketchup
(Season 6, Episode 4, “To Have and to Hold”)
Heinz (ketchup, that is, not beans) was not convinced by Don’s bold “Pass the Heinz” campaign, which advertised for ketchup not by showcasing a bottle of it, but rather by presenting pictures of food that desperately needed some. Despite the crucial lesson Don embedded into his pitch (as he does) — “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” — the Heinz guys “still want to see our bottle.” But Don was just ahead of his time: In 2017, 50 years after a fictional advertising genius dreamed up an imaginary ketchup campaign, Heinz is actually launching it.
(Season 6, Episode 13, “In Care Of”)
It’s terrible advertising, of course, to tell a company that they shouldn’t advertise at all, even if their product needs no introduction. But as one of his most personally profound moments of the whole series, Don’s season 6 Hershey speech ranks among his best pitches, even if it does lose him the account — not to mention his job (sort of). We can also justify its place by arguing that the first half of this scene, anyway, is good advertising: Don opens the meeting with a note-perfect update on his Kodak Carousel pitch, a completely fabricated childhood anecdote leading up to the slogan, “Hershey’s is the currency of affection.” The clients eat it up like candy, but then the incredible happens: Don Draper chooses this moment to be honest, and to be Dick Whitman.
He brings the account guys’ self-congratulatory banter to a screeching halt with the truth about his upbringing, but the amazing thing is that even his grim reality conveys a similar message about the product he’s trying to sell, albeit in less saccharine terms. “The closest I got to feeling wanted,” he says, was when one of the girls in the whorehouse where he grew up would buy him a Hershey bar. The moment is shocking, it’s heartbreaking, it’s cathartic — but it’s also, obviously, highly unprofessional. The other partners reward his performance with a mandatory leave of absence, but the rest of us can never look at a brown candy wrapper the same way again.
RELATED: Read EW’s 2007 review of Mad Men
1. Kodak Carousel
(Season 1, Episode 13, “The Wheel”)
“In Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally means ‘the pain from an old wound,’” Don tells his rapt audience in his greatest pitch, which happened all the way back in the first season but would reverberate throughout the series (which, of course, traded heavily in nostalgia in itself). After all, how many of his later pitches reference the Kodak Carousel? How many times did he seek to recapture this moment, in which he ruminates on the bittersweet impossibility of ever truly recapturing any moment?
“This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again,” he says, using the Carousel to switch to a picture of his daughter Sally sitting on his shoulders, to wife Betty holding a baby girl, to him carrying his bride over the threshold. “To a place where we know we are loved.” It’s near impossible not to tear up over his tender speech and the happy photographs of his beautiful family, and the heightened effect by the scene that follows in which he rushes home to an empty house. Throughout the series, Don chased the magic of this shining professional victory as much as he chased the sweet feeling of belonging that the pitch was built around. But this is a carousel — you can only chase it in circles.