Honda's ‘Mad Men' close-up

LOS ANGELES --The year is 1965, and an upstart motorcycle maker is ready to pitch a review of its $3 million advertising account with an equally upstart ad agency.

The company: Honda Motor. The agency: Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Of course, the event never happened because the agency is the brainchild of the AMC Network's “Mad Men,” one of the few consistently brilliant shows on television.

Acting and dialogue on the show are true to the pre-free-love era. That means skinny ties and tight suits for the men, short skirts and superstructure brassieres for the women, and whiskey on the office sideboards consumed like so much iced tea.

That also means the not-so-quiet racism and sexism that simmered throughout the early '60s, which bubble to the surface during the Honda review. Neither Honda nor the agency comes out shining.

The agency is clearly in deep water dealing with the Japanese. Agency executives cram by reading The Chrysanthemum and the Sword and dining at Benihana.

The Honda executives, meanwhile, openly leer at Joan, the well-endowed office manager, and make jokes about her stature. In a more subtle bit of arrogance, the Japanese also put conditions on the review that mean SCDP could never win the account.

Meanwhile Roger Sterling -- the agency's silver fox, who fought in the Pacific -- can't get over the fact that he must bow to countrymen of those who killed his buddies on some blazing sand pit 20 years prior.

After returning from a conveniently scheduled lunch to discover he was left out of the pitch, Sterling sabotages the review, confronting the Honda executives with thinly veiled references to Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima.

The agency is shamed. Sterling nearly comes to blows with an agency Young Turk, who tells him to forget the past. Sterling then is stomped by agency shaman Bert Cooper, who asks why Sterling didn't rage when Bernbach won the contract to do business with Volkswagen.

Here's the thing: This was no product placement. “Mad Men” writers never contacted Honda about the script, American Honda Executive Vice President John Mendel said. He didn't even know Honda was going to be a crucial plot element before the episode aired.

Clearly, Honda wasn't involved, or off-color dialogue like Sterling telling his colleagues to fraternize with their “new yellow buddies” would have been expunged from the script.

But unsanitized dialogue is part of the authenticity of the show. You must wonder what key advertiser BMW thought about all the World War II references in the episode, especially now that “Mad Men” star Jon Hamm is the voice of Mercedes-Benz commercials.

About the only plot misstep is that Honda is supposedly pitching the account in early 1965. That's just two years after Grey Advertising blew open the U.S. market with the legendary “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” campaign on the Academy Awards, although Honda sales were already starting to back down. Still, a continuity check would have helped.

Ahem, back to the soap opera. Through the fireworks, the teetering agency soldiers on, keen to win the account or else risk bankruptcy. Does SCDP win the Honda business? If you didn't see it live, best check the reruns this week. Better yet, start from the beginning. Season one, episode one.