Let's talk for a minute about how sometimes life imitates art, how art imitates life, and then how sometimes life sees art doing something profoundly stupid and says, "Hey, that looks fun!"
Just such a thing happened after last week's provocative episode of Mad Men, that period drama about the manly Don Draper and his cadre of 1960s advertising executives. One of the show's quirks is that it features real-world brands in its story lines' advertising campaigns. Among them: A fine, formerly fickle car company called Jaguar.
So it was that, when a Mad Men storyline featured a fictionalized historical Jaguar, the real-life company – through social media – decided to get involved, and promptly drove itself into a ditch.
As a series, Mad Men is a long meditation on desire, power and sexuality, and the many kinds of misery they seem to inspire. Over the course of this season – and some fairly heavy spoilers are ahead – the show's heroes at imaginary ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce have been vying to represent Jaguar. It's a car, and, as Don Draper explains while rallying the troops, "every agency on Madison Avenue is defined by the moment they got their car."
Cars! Now, there's a loaded subject. In the series, Jaguars are explained to us as objects of desire that are sleek but fickle, coming with a toolbox and requiring hands-on maintenance from their owners. Could this possibly be turned into a sexually charged metaphor? English majors, start your engines.
One contentious storyline of the past few weeks involves Joan Holloway, the red-headed series mainstay. In an episode three weeks ago, she posed as Don's wife as the two took a Jaguar for a test-drive.
Now, Mad Men is a hot property, and its characters are hot items. Jaguar's real-world U.S. operation went on a bender, issuing Mad Men-themed tweets through its feed that promote its new slogan, "Feel Alive," ignominiously compressed for Twitter purposes. There were links to galleries of Mad Men's Jaguars; exhortations that Jaguars make Don Draper "#FeelAlive," and earnest repeating of relevant lines from the show, including but not limited to "I want one."
And then: A plea to mass-forward a tweet "if taking a ride with Joan Holloway in a Jaguar would make you #FeelAlive," managing to gently suggest that would-be customers are currently feeling dead.
Things started to go sideways. The following week's episode introduced a new character, the squat, loathsome head of Jaguar's dealer association, who has the power to make or break our heroes' business. He names his price for giving them the Jaguar account: one night with Joan.
The unfolding show stunned audiences. In a series-defining moment, copywriter Peggy Olsen, arguably the series' most compelling character, gets fed up with being treated poorly and leaves the firm. Don Draper wows the Jaguar men by pitching them a none-too-subtle line: "Jaguar: At Last, Something Beautiful You Can Truly Own." And Joan takes the offer, extracting an ownership stake in the ad agency from her colleagues – her price for winning the business in exchange for sex.
Real-life brand implications: awkward.
Jaguar had put itself in a bind. Thanks to its social-media adventurism, it couldn't claim to be above the fray. The company that one week is making "aooga-aooga" noises about taking a ride with Joan, has less recourse when the story it has hitched itself to turns sour. (In an interview with Ad Age that smelled faintly of damage control, the company claimed to have no advance knowledge of the storyline.)
It might have been a good moment to draw a line between fact and fiction. Instead, Jaguar USA made an eager-to-please pronouncement.
"Loved the pitch. Didn't love the process. We applaud Peggy for leaving SCDP," they tweeted.
With that, Jaguar endorsed a satirical pitch, cheerfully signing on to the idea that it would be nice to own a woman, but that a car would do in a pinch. (The fact that it also managed to spoil a crucial episode for the very fan base it was trying to pander to didn't help either.)
Twitter fans revolted, the blogs started talking about it in the manner of a cautionary tale, and the company found itself embroiled in a conversation it could only hope would die down. What could be worse than entangling your brand in a tawdry prostitution racket?
It was at this juncture that the next episode aired. A character tries to use a Jaguar to gas himself. He fails, however, because the Jaguar won't start.
The poor Jaguar USA Twitter account finally got the message, and stopped digging. It could merely tweet, in reference to a beloved, iconic model, "Well, at least it didn't happen in the E-Type."
Remember, social media is about desire, too: desire to be accepted, desire to be popular, desire to paint a picture of yourself as the person you want to be. Brands can help with this, but not if they're busy chasing desires of their own. Jaguar chased Mad Men into self-satire. A little dignity goes a long way on the Internet. Without it, it's all too easy to get stuck in the past.