Did Don Draper invent content marketing?

By telling the tale of how Lucky Strike cigarettes are made, TV’s enigmatic ad man revealed why stories make the best campaigns shine

After Mad Men reached its finale, re-watching the series’ very first episode got me thinking – did TV’s enigmatic ad man Don Draper invent content marketing in 1961, 40 years before it fully came into vogue? 

In that opening episode, Lucky Strike faces legislation that severely restricts how it can advertise cigarettes. Suddenly, it hits Don. The solution to standing out isn’t addressing the negatives. The simple truth of the product is far stronger. 

Don Draper: This is the greatest advertising opportunity since the invention of cereal. We have six identical companies making six identical products. We can say anything we want. How do you make your cigarettes? 

Lee Garner Snr: We breed insect-repellent tobacco seeds, plant them in the North Carolina sunshine, grow it, cut it, cure it, toast it...

Don Draper: There you go. 
[Writes on chalkboard "IT'S TOASTED."] 

Lee Garner Jnr: But everybody's tobacco is toasted. 

Don Draper: No. Everybody else's tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strikes'… is toasted. 

It’s a perfect example of how a brand’s personal stories can deliver insight that brings a product to life. By explaining how Luckies are made, Don is offering a deeper, more engaging USP – a warmer, personable, unique identity that boosts interest, familiarity and empathy with customers, and will last as long as Luckies stay ‘toasted’. 

Backing up a simple truth with a more rounded brand story is a philosophy that has always differentiated the best products from their rivals. 

In the 1950s – the pre-Mad Men era, when marketing exploded – pioneering campaigns were about words and storytelling. Compared to today’s lazy last-ditch resorts – aspirational envy-driving celebrity endorsements, or meaningless taglines and noisy in-your-face gimmicks that briefly create a distracting aura of ‘cool’ – the best ads of the 1950s explained why a product’s qualities made it better.


Just look at Volkswagen’s ‘Lemon’ – a story about quality control that explained why Volkswagens were so dependable, and justified the brave, eye-catching tagline. You can still see the seeds of that message in ‘If only everything in life were as reliable’ and the more recent ‘Sounds like a Golf’. 

Think how evocative and enduring Dairy Milk’s ‘Glass and a half’ identity remains today (even though the words are no longer used, due to EU regulations). Or how Audi embues every ad with technology stories backing up its Vorsprung Durch Technik ethos. Dyson marked itself out from the generic ‘Hoover’ pack by explaining how its Cyclone technology worked, giving greater insight and understanding to the benefit. 

By trusting an audience to listen, and treating them with the intelligence to absorb and understand a deeper message, these are brands that have used their own rich stories to disrupt their markets and take a dominant position. 

As pioneering ad man David Ogilvy said: “Consumers decide to buy or not buy based on the content of your advertising, not its form. The more informative your advertising is, the more persuasive it will be.” 

So, it may be a stretch to say Don Draper invented content marketing in 1961 (in fact, it was probably Dr Oetker, who put recipes on his baking powder in 1891). 

What Don understood, though, was how deep brand storytelling helped him do marketing well.

Toby is a senior editor at Haymarket Network, working on accounts such as Castrol, Volkswagen, and Jaguar.   

Follow Toby here @tobywaller