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Pitch Perfect

Mad Men glamorizes the skill of connecting with specific audiences. But when real-life advertisers pick up Jewish tropes, are they selling to Jews?

Mat Zucker
March 23, 2012
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo YouTube. )
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo YouTube. )

Mad Men returns Sunday for its fifth season, and as a creative director in advertising, I can’t wait. America’s obsession with sexy Don Draper has helped make people who do what I do infinitely more attractive—a relief, especially considering that in rankings of respected professions, people in advertising usually fall just below lawyers and used-car salesmen.

The ad industry has, of course, evolved a lot since the time of Sterling Cooper Draper Price—particularly what and how much we drink at lunch—but what hasn’t changed is the effort that goes into creating campaigns to connect with specific audiences. Brands like Subaru, Guinness, Citibank, and American Airlines create unique campaigns for target groups such as African-Americans, West Indians, Hispanics, and gay men and lesbians (of which I’m also a card-carrying member). What about Jewish Americans? Well, aside from Maxwell House’s iconic Haggadah at Passover, we don’t see much.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t mass advertising that might be talking to us. In fact, watching commercials during the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards ceremony this year, I started to wonder about a few ads that connected to me on a Jewish level—even without a Seinfeld-esque accent or a mouth-clamped “Oy Vey.” Are there brands that rely on what a colleague of mine has called coded Judaism? Sometimes it’s obvious, and sometimes you have to read between the lines. Look at these five new ad campaigns and decide:

Capital One
At first glance, there’s absolutely nothing Jewish about the Capital One brand. It’s from Virginia. It’s barely 25 years old. But in a big departure from the long-running campaign starring Vikings (also not Jewish), Capital One Bank now taps a portfolio of funny men in its ads, who I would argue, are specifically targeting discrete types of people. There’s Alec Baldwin, for example, to appeal to liberals, Jimmy Fallon for the young people, and Jerry Stiller for us, who comforts a woman with “Bubby” and decries earning “bupkis” on interest.

J.C. Penney
Ellen Degeneres is the new spokesperson for this retailer I don’t normally have an affinity for (my mother raised me in the racks of Marshalls and Daffy’s), but Ellen as a blonde kvetch caught my eye. “This is ridiculous!” she complains about every irritating shopping convention, from sporadic sales to prices that end in 99 cents to endless coupons. Then she wonders, “Was it always this way?” and takes us back to the Wild West, the Victorian era, and Roman days for a review. As a people, we also have always used history as a guide for right and wrong. Moses. King Solomon. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Or we tap stories closer to home. To dissuade me from going into advertising, for example, my grandfather endlessly recounted what happened to his childhood friend Shorty Krantz, who lost his biggest client and ended up with a pushcart in Newark. “Become an accountant,” he urged me. “You’ll learn to love it.”

Kraft Miracle Whip
The last time we saw someone Jewish experiment on-screen with mayonnaise was Woody Allen in Hannah and Her Sisters. Now, as part of its campaign fighting persecution of condiments, Kraft Miracle Whip evokes The Scarlet Letter, which may seem like a stretch, but listen closely to the script. Lines like “Your kind is not welcome here” and pointing at someone’s physical appearance are exactly the kind of discrimination we’ve been fighting for millennia. And pause your video player on the sandwich: That’s not white bread.

Royal Caribbean
A mysterious voice speaks to you through an inanimate object (a sea shell) about something primal you crave. Seem like a familiar device to get your attention? And just like the burning bush atop Mount Sinai, there’s even a bit of guilt to motivate (“When’s the last time you visited me?”). Now the voice is incredibly hokey, but so was the Big Guy’s in The Ten Commandments. What the commercials don’t show, however, are the people watching the people talking back to the sea shells—which is probably how I look when I pray.

Ralph Lauren
Ralph Lauren isn’t just a Jewish boy who’s done good, but a master marketer who appeals to us on many levels. For years, we’ve bought the fantasy of an all-American, modern, rich, quality, sportsmanlike lifestyle. I tried being a WASP for a year in college—learning to drink Scotch, playing squash, and evenly layering my polo shirts. Sure, the Ralph Lauren ads and website are classy white-bread, but like myself, I’ve always known underneath it’s seeded rye.


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Mat Zucker is the former Chief Creative Officer of OgilvyOne Worldwide, New York, and the advertising correspondent for the website The Faster Times. His Twitter feed is @matzucker.

Mat Zucker is the former Chief Creative Officer of OgilvyOne Worldwide, New York, and the advertising correspondent for the website The Faster Times. His Twitter feed is @matzucker.