Mad Men and Scientists
Season Six of AMC’s Mad Men will premier this spring on April 7 and scientists around the world will smirk again.
If you aren’t one of the millions of viewers eagerly awaiting the premier, let me give you a quick synopsis of the series. Mad Men follows the escapades of Madison Avenue advertising executives, as they lie and cheat their way to success, while looking enviably dazzling and dapper. It’s a commentary on the shallowness of American popular culture in the 1950s and 1960s—and on the dark side of marketing. It’s the very opposite of what science, our quest for truth and deeper understanding of the universe, is supposed to be about--something to smirk at indeed.
But smirk or not, I love this show! When I watch Mad Men, I’m reminded how much the world has changed since the 1960s. We don’t wear so many fedoras. We don’t tolerate littering or smoking in public spaces. And the practice of marketing has changed—swung around almost completely, so that it is nearly aligned with the ethics of science.
In the era of Mad Men, the most powerful marketing medium was television commercials. Television commercials are one-way communication. Companies hid behind the wall of the television screen, blasting out messages, but seldom listening to their customers. Customers were unhappy, and the word marketing became almost synonymous with lying about your product to turn a profit.
But nowadays, thanks to the internet, if we think a company is lying or making a shoddy product, we don’t sit still and take it. We trash them on Twitter. We give them a zero-star rating on Yelp. We post videos like Dave Carroll’s “United Breaks Guitars” YouTube video that garnered 12 million plus views: a homemade negative commercial. In ways that continue to shock the business world, marketing has become two-way communication.
In response, the practice of marketing has changed. Today, we teach marketing students that “markets are conversations”. Companies like Starbucks and Whole Foods have embraced the idea that building communities, not tearing them down, is what helps a business grow. Companies like IBM and Toyota have come to value transparency, honesty and customer engagement as a way to build consumer confidence. Some companies, like Google, Facebook, and Chipotle even rely on co-creating their products with their customers. If you posted a photo on Facebook or designed your own burrito at Chipotle, well, that company’s product is partly made by you.
To be sure, there’s still a big role for “traditional marketing” tools like billboards and TV and radio commercials. The whole world hasn’t yet caught up to the internet era business values of honesty, community and engagement. Not everyone reads news on a Wii or “pins” from a smartphone. There will always be companies who ignore their customers at their peril, just like there will always be scientists who hurt their own reputations through thoughtless self-promotion.
But there’s a whole lot less about marketing for scientists to smirk at these days—and a lot we can learn from the business world about how to communicate science and advocate for science. I like to say that science and marketing go hand in hand: every paper you write, every talk you give, every grant proposal you submit is a kind of marketing pitch for your intellectual contributions. We scientists might as well benefit from the latest advances in marketing and learn how to do it right—for the benefit or our careers, and for the benefit of the world.
I’m proud to now be working with SciLogs! I hope you’ll stay tuned in—next week, I’ll be interviewing professional image consultant Kasey Smith to get her tips on how scientists can dress to rock a TED talk. And please also check out other new SciLogs.com bloggers Alex Brown at Do you speak science? and Malcolm Cambpell who is joining The Aggregator as co-blogger.