Thursday, 10 February 2011

Mad Men: Advertising Illusions

As a rule, I’m not someone who is a great follower of TV series. Back at the end of the eighties I watched Golden Girls and Alf, but Friends and Ally McBeal passed me completely by and I’ve felt no great urge to watch Sex and the City, Lost, ER or Desperate Houswives. Come to think of it, I did watch Twin Peaks on a repeat and thirtysomething – or at any rate most of them. Which basically describes the problem I have with series in general. Maybe it has something to do with my somewhat puritanical Catholic background, but I have never felt comfortable cancelling anything else because I wanted to watch something on TV and any thoughts I had of watching a series usually capitulated before the ordinary chaos of life, where guests, or something to do with work, or a sick child, or an evening out made a regular evening TV appointment impossible. And although I am by no means technophobic, I admit to my membership of that vast club who found programming a video-recorder, if not impossible, certainly more trouble than it was usually worth.

But life goes on and technology advances. A while ago, my daughter gave me a box with four DVDs and the recommendation that they were well worth watching. And so I came to Mad Men. And was enthralled.

For those who do not know it, Mad Men is a series which revolves around an advertising agency on Madison Avenue (hence the title), New York in the 1960s, and particularly around the life of its creative director, Don Draper. It is the first basic cable series in the US to have won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series – and it has done so for the past three years running. In Germany, only the first series has been as yet aired, and that on a relatively obscure public service channel after midnight, which may explain why I hadn’t picked up on it at all.

So where do I start? Perhaps by limiting this essay to comments about Season 1, as it’s the only one I’ve (as yet) watched completely – I am currently in the middle of the second season. But this also serves to give me a particular personal context, for the first season of Mad Men takes place in 1960, the year in which I was born. Which served to have me watching it fascinated at the manifold ways the world has changed in my lifetime, half a century.

That year the pill was first approved by the FDA in the USA, Cassius Clay won a gold medal at the Olympics, Coronation Street was first broadcast, the USA sent 3,500 troops to Vietnam and JFK was elected president. The Kennedy/Nixon election contest is one of the themes running through the first season of Mad Men, with the Sterling Cooper agency strongly Republican and, in fact, doing some work for the Nixon campaign.

It is a world which, to me, seems infinitely far away now. The world of the agency is completely male dominated; the (white) men are the movers and shakers, coming into work and handing their coats and hats to their (female) secretaries, whose jobs are to keep their bosses happy by doing whatever is necessary – which may include sleeping with them. Everyone smokes massive amounts of cigarettes, everywhere, though the first reports of the health dangers of tobacco smoke have appeared and Sterling Cooper is engaged in dealing with the potential problems arising for their client, Lucky Strike. Booze is the second mainstay of working life, high octane spirits at that.

There is, however, far more to Mad Men than carefully researched fidelity to the historical reality. This is a multi-layered artistic endeavour with an impressive amount of depth to it, which is all the better for the fact that its makers are confident in presenting all kinds of impressions, comments, observations, statements in a subtle, understated, often fragmentary way. The fact that they intentionally use different scriptwriters and directors is certainly a strength. The costumes and props are impeccable. The music, whether originally composed or contemporary choices, always fits. Unusually for TV work, the series has a strong cinematic feel to it, the makers using mostly dolly cameras rather than steadicam or handheld techniques. Matt Weiner, the man whose brainchild the project is, has a very sure hand and nearly everything about it just works.

There’s all the sociological stuff, the exploration of the accepted paradigms of post-war America with their inherent manifold contradictions and their brittle fault-lines, many of which will be exploded during the sixties; a decade which moved from Doris Day to Led Zeppelin, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Acid at Woodstock, from nuclear families in suburbia to free-love communes in Haight-Ashbury. Themes like the role of the suburban Mom, the social impossibility of being homosexual, blacks being so far down the social ladder that, even when they’re present, they’re practically invisible, the role of Jews in American society, stereotypical class and role snobbishness, even littering are all … touched on? … shown? … explored? …

This is where one really begins to see the artistic quality of the production. Mad Men passes on the opportunity to make trite judgements, to structure the presentation of issues in order to guide the viewer towards a judgement, formed by sympathy and antipathy for the particular characters involved, moulded by the way the story is told so that the observer will reach a definite conclusion. You understand the motivations and situations of all those involved, with their particular points of view, limitations and prejudices and then, just when you think you’ve got a character sussed, they say or do something which surprises you, rattles your view of them.

This fascinates me because, on another level, I don’t believe that such an approach is possible. Telling a story is always, in some sense, manipulative, because the storyteller is always presenting her or his own vision(s); imposing his or her own structures on the raw mass of people and events which are selected and shown in a particular way, building dynamics and dramatic threads, connecting them with each other, weaving them together to achieve … what? Some kind of unity at any rate. I won’t go into this much farther, because it would involve moving into a discussion of themes brought up in contemporary philosophy and theories of criticism, structuralism and deconstruction (Habermas, Foucault, Derrida, etc.) – themes which are obtuse, difficult (and boring!) enough within the academic context to make me pretty sure that this is where I want to leave them.

Lucky Strike advert, 1951
The key to getting a handle on Mad Men is, in my view, to look at the overall context in which the series is set; the world of advertising. Advertising defines and influences our world in so many ways that we are barely aware of many of them. According to Wikipedia, around $500 billion was spent on advertising last year. The figure is unsourced and almost certainly far too low given that the top three companies alone, Proctor & Gamble, Unilever and L’Oreal between them spent $19.27 billion (figures for 2009). But even this figure is around the same size as the U.S. defence budget – by orders of magnitude the largest in the world.

We can hardly imagine a world without advertising. I remember a personal “Ah-ha!” experience I had when I visited Moscow in 1988 and took the Metro one evening to go to the theatre. Moscow’s subway is extensive and the major stations in the centre are large, monumental even. It took me some time to realise what I found so strange about them; there were no advertising hoardings, no products jumping at me from every corner, promising me satisfaction, happiness, belonging, contentment – all the subliminal demanding and caressing to which we are continually subjected. I loved it. I also have no doubt that things look very different there today.

A simple, naïve description of advertising would be to say that it is a matter of bringing your product to the attention of potential consumers. But it is far more than that, as we all somehow know. It has to do with playing sophisticated, subliminal chords on deep strings in our human natures, strings which have origins in the emotional, pre-rational, even animal parts of our minds. It is about our hopes and our fears, our relationships and identities; our dreams and pictures of ourselves, touching them, activating them, manipulating them. As Don Draper describes it in the final episode of Session 1, “the most important idea in advertising is ‘new.’ It creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion.” But in this defining moment for the series, a sales pitch Draper is making for the Kodak Carousel which doesn’t leave a dry eye in the house, he follows on deeper into the heart of what advertising does:

“…in Greek, nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a space ship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called a wheel, it’s called a carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Round and around, and back home again. To a place where we know we are loved.” 

More cynically, perhaps, it can be seen as the same mechanism which drives the old funfair barker, the three-card-trick man; “Roll up, roll up, roll up, Step right this way, folks …” It’s selling us an illusion, a pig in the pole, making a promise which cannot be fulfilled but to which we are as addicted as the junkie is to his fix – your deepest longings stilled, satisfaction guaranteed and never mind Mick Jagger.

Don Draper himself is an icon of what the series is about because he himself is, in fact, an illusion, a con. Early on we are confronted with the mystery of his carefully hidden past and as the series unfolds we learn that his whole life and career is based on a stolen identity – a supremely cynical apotheosis of the American dream of “the self-made man.” At his own very centre there is an enigma, an existential emptiness, but out of this emptiness he acts and creates himself and on the basis of this illusion makes a very “real” reality. He suffers under his internal contradictions but is unable to resolve them. While he can be deeply cynical about life (“You're born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I'm living like there's no tomorrow, because there isn't one.”), he has his principles and, if he doesn’t always stick to them, he manages a lot more moral authenticity then many of the other characters, particularly his immediate boss and mentor, Roger Sterling.

“What you see is what you get.” This is the big lie at the centre of advertising, because it encourages you to see things you can never get – or if you do get them, they quickly loose their attraction. It feeds on awakened, unfulfilled expectations because once that existential itch has been created you’ll go on scratching it, go on looking for new lotions to ease the irritation.

I’ve already referred to the Rolling Stones and their thoughts on Satisfaction. In another song Jagger and Richards tell us, “You can’t always get what you want, but … sometimes you might get what you need.” With Mad Men it’s not easy to define what you’re getting but, having watched it, I’m sure that, whatever it was, it certainly scratched quite a lot of itches I had. And that, dear reader, is a recommendation.

Pictures retrieved from:


  1. this definitely prods my interest..I will have to get the DVD(s).. we seem to be on the same wave length in regards to technology..:)

  2. Hi Francis,

    I just stumbled upon your blog doing a google-search of science-fiction images (would you believe). But I'm also a massive fan of Madmen and am also midway through the second series.

    Interesting article. Very well thought out. I really enjoyed reading it.

  3. Francis,

    Mad Men is an excellent series. I've gotten to the end of series 4 (it has been shown on BBC) and it has held my interest well.

    American dramas have improved massively in the last 10 years or so. I would strongly recommend Deadwood, Six Feet Under and Battlestar Galactica (a remake which is far superior to the kitschy 70s series). All have ended but are well worth a dvd rental.

  4. I haven't seen Mad Men and doubt I'll make an effort in spite of your excellent review. I was 14 by the time 1960 rolled around so remember the changes and the hype pretty well.

    The one thing your essay reminded me of was a BBC program by Adam Curtis we watched a couple of years ago called 'The Century of the Self' which I expect you've seen. Talk about misusing the root issues of psychoanalysis :-)

  5. Susan, for those interested, the BBC documentary (4 parts) can be watched online here

  6. "I admit to my membership of that vast club who found programming a video-recorder, if not impossible, certainly more trouble than it was usually worth."

    This resonates with me. :-)

  7. I don't have television coverage where I live. Once the analog signal system was yanked away from the citizens of this country and given to law enforcement, that was it. I bought a stupid digital antenna but it didn't work. Oh well. I don't have cable or satellite but I do have a VCR and DVD player so if and when I watch my set, it is usually commercial free.

    I have heard a lot about Madmen as a series--usually on the feminist blogs I read and their reviews are not so complimentary. If I get a chance I might see an episode or two so I can judge for myself. We'll see.

    Your blog is fantastic. I should know that the people who follow susan are going to be intelligent and fascinating people.

  8. Mad Men is a series revolve around an advertising agency on Madison Avenue takes place in 1960. This is a multi-layered artistic endeavour with an impressive amount of depth to it.

  9. Liberality As someone who regards himself as a feminist, I'm afraid I don't understand the feminist critiques of Mad Men. The early 60s were a deeply overtly mysogenistic era; as I see it, the series simply reflects that. You might as well criticise it on health grounds because it shows people continually smoking.

    For people who tend to view art through a political lens, Mad Men is certainly going to cause all sorts of problems, because it is certainly not politically correct. Nor can it be, the time it portrays certainly wasn't. And, as I commented in the essay, it eschews opportunities to preach. I suspect some of those who criticise it on such grounds are blinded by the purity of their political positions.

    The series can seem to be informed by a profound moral emptiness and, if viewed simplistically, this can be disturbing. I see this, however, as one of its greatest subtle artistic strengths, because it is a reflection of the moral emptiness at the heart of the whole milieu it portrays. To get this, you have to move yourself to another level of observation/analysis - for many myopic critics (who seem to be particulary at home in academia, but that's another subject) this is psychologically challenging. Personally, I think the artistic sophistication of the series actually works better than crude agit-prop.

  10. Great essay. I am taking a class on Mad Men right now (through a liberal studies program, trying to escape myopic viewpoints) and agree with you on the artistic sophistication and degree to which Draper at least attempts to create something positive to try and move out of the existential depths. I'd like to hear what you think if you'd made it further through the series.

    I blog on the series as part of my class. Please come by and comment if you are interested.


Your comments are, of course, welcome. I've had to reinstall captchas recently as - like most other bloggers - I was being plagued by spambots.


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