The fifth season of “Mad Men,” the acclaimed series that depicts the fiercely competitive world of Madison Avenue advertising in the 1960s, began Sunday night on the AMC cable channel.
Of course, real-life Mad Men were throwing back highballs and wooing big clients long before the fictional adman Don Draper hooked TV audiences. Edward McCabe is a veteran of those wilder times.
“We used to fly first-class to L.A. on American Airlines,” McCabe said in an interview in a Midtown New York hotel. “And then the first minute we got there we would run into James Mason or some other movie star, and we would end up drinking for two days before we got to the production. But we worked really hard, around the clock, in order to earn the right to act like such goof-offs.”
From the 1960s to the late '80s, McCabe created lasting brand images for clients like Perdue Farms and Hebrew National — and memorable campaigns for Volvo Cars of North America.
Volvo's reputation for crash safety — a widely held identity, deftly transcending time and individual models — was solidified with a compelling statistic that Volvo used in its advertising for nearly two decades under McCabe's direction: “Nine out of every 10 Volvos registered in the U.S. in the last 11 years are still on the road.”
Nowhere in that simple statement is safety mentioned, yet, according to Volvo, modern buyers overwhelmingly identify safety features as their No. 1 purchase reason. Value and experience with the brand come in a distant second and third.
“Our advertising was tough,” McCabe said. “It was not done with nuance; it was done with a stylish hammer in the face.”
The stuff Mad Men are made of
An animated man whose confidence overshadows his physical stature, McCabe comes off as perhaps a decade younger than his 73 years. And while his colorful roughneck demeanor is far different from the polished Don Drapers of the world, he repeatedly proved his ability to romance big ideas and create powerful headlines — in short, he had the stuff that Mad Men are made of.
McCabe was the youngest copywriter to be inducted into the prestigious One Club Creative Hall of Fame, alongside Madison Avenue stars like Bill Bernbach, David Ogilvy and Leo Burnett. He was also a co-founder of Scali McCabe Sloves, one of the more creative advertising agencies of the era.
It was there that he helped to speed the rise of brands then gaining prominence. For Perdue, he developed the slogan “It Takes a Tough Man to Make a Tender Chicken,” a play on the appearance of Frank Perdue, the company's leader. For Hebrew National, it was “We Answer to a Higher Authority,” a nod to the kosher certification of the brand's frankfurters. And for Volvo, he created the headline “Fat Cars Die Young,” making a virtue of the car's smaller size in an era of giant sedans.
“With the exception of maybe VW, that era of automotive advertising was still very much in that glamorous, ‘Just tell people how pretty it is and don't deal with substance' phase,” said Bob Schmetterer, who had been hired by the Scali agency in 1971 as an account executive.
McCabe's advertising career started in the mailroom at McCann Erickson. He quickly worked his way through the traffic and art departments, and later wrangled his way into a low-level copywriter position by doing someone else's work.
“I would go nosing around the office late at night and started noticing this copywriter who was always so behind in his work,” he said. “So I went to him and said, ‘Why don't you give me the real garbage you don't want to do? It will give me a chance to break in and do something.' ”
So for a year, McCabe was the ghost writer on various small assignments and trade ads. His first ad won an award.
McCabe's competitive drive impressed those who worked with him.
“One of the things that Ed taught me was that you need to identify an enemy,” said Schmetterer. The men spent a lot of time together, researching obscure product claims like the average height of a Swede, which became a way to address the car's roominess. “Ed would often say the enemy of Volvo is Detroit — that everything Detroit has stood for, meaning planned obsolescence and cars that aren't very safe or well-built — are everything we're not.”
One of McCabe's best-known ads, “The Roads of America Are Strewn With Broken Promises,” showed a broken-down Detroit sedan that had been left under the George Washington Bridge. Its intent was to communicate the longevity and durability of Volvos.
“The ad focused on a relevant and current phenomenon,” he said. “At the time, there were abandoned cars all over the road. People were just parking their cars and walking away.”
“Weak advertising tells people what you want them to know,” he added. “Strong advertising gets people to conclude what you want them to know.”
He continued: “I have a theory that comes from the smoking era. If you walk up to someone on the street and say, ‘Excuse me, sir,' they are gone. But if you come right out and say, ‘Got a match?' you get your match.”
McCabe used those street smarts to figure out the consumer benefits that elevate product features to a more relevant level. Instead of focusing on features like multilayer anti-corrosion coatings, he would concentrate on longevity, telling consumers to “Beat the System, Buy a Volvo.”
Volvo's safety image was, in part, a byproduct of this approach.
“It's a common mistake to assume that Volvo's advertising and marketing strategy had something to do with safety,” McCabe said. “In reality, it was the durability-reliability strategy. The basic idea is that a well-built, sturdy car was one that you could depend on day in and day out, thus also making the vehicle intrinsically safe.”
Volvo's advantage in creating a positive safety story served the brand well when government regulators began to push for crash testing, air bags and stability-control systems.
“Safety was never mentioned in the early work,” Schmetterer said. “It really wasn't until there was a beginning for a mandate in Washington that we did an overt call out to safety.”
The headline: “It Shouldn't Take an Act of Congress to Make Cars Safe.”