Photo via AMCTV

In 2007, I was new to DDB having been hired as Chief Communications Officer at the storied agency. One of the first memos that hit my desk was a “heads up” that Doyle Dane Bernbach was going to be featured in a new television series. Creator Matthew Weiner consulted with the agency prior to production and my arrival, but we did not know how we were to be treated in the storyline.

Fast-forward eight years and I am happy to say that DDB faired the best in the quippy portrayals of Madison Avenue agencies (poor McCann!). I would have watched and been loyal to the show regardless of my employ or career, but the show has been an amazing trip through my adolescence and profession as well as our society’s history and pop culture.

Now that the final season has started, I’m feeling nostalgic for all of the nostalgia the show has provided. Mad Men is cleverly premised on investigating the past by monitoring the effect of change; we have been witness to troubled public and private lives, personal struggle, even capitulation, in the face of social upheaval.

The series addresses race, gender roles, war, free love, assassinations, office politics (on an über scale), infidelity, addiction, and, occasionally, advertising. On the last subject, there has been surprisingly little discussion of the impact mass production coupled with mass advertising had on society. After all, the success of the ad industry helped turn people into “consumers” and products into “brands” – and we have never been the same since.

Nor has the series tackled the quality of advertising in the period. In the 1960’s advertising became a game of more not better. Teressa Iezzi, staff editor at Fast Company and previously editor of Creativity, wrote in her book, The Idea Writers: Copywriting in a New Media and Marketing Era, “For every ‘Think Small’ (a DDB campaign for Volkswagen) in the 1960’s there was a bottomless bowl of the same insufferable dross that’s served up on any given commercial break and that covers the ground from forgettable waste of everyone’s time and money to actively annoying disincentive to ever buy the product being advertised.”

It is amazing, given the volume of work from this era, that each major agency can cite only a small number of standout campaigns.

For Ogilvy & Mather, it was “The Man in the Hathaway Shirt,” who sported a black eye patch adding mystery to his decision to wear only Hathaway. The roguish adventurer drove sport cars, sailed yachts, courted women, held an elephant’s tusk and inspected a shotgun – all in the same crisp white button down. Dos Equis’ contemporary “The Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign owes a lot to Ogilvy and Hathaway given the characters’ similarities. Ogilvy also coined the catchy and irreverent “Schweppervescence” for the soft drink company and defined elegance, comfort and innovation for Rolls Royce by stating, “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.”

A side by side look at “The Man in the Hathaway Shirt” (image via blog.oskoui-oskoui.com) and “The Most Interesting Man in the World” (image via Dos Equis)

Leo Burnett, the agency and the man, loved using cultural archetypes. His agency invented mythical personalities that held American values at their core, creating the Jolly Green Giant, Tony the Tiger, the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Marlboro Man. Leo Burnett kept a folder in his desk called “Corny Language.” He told his people, “Make it simple. Make it memorable. Make it inviting to look at. Make it fun to read.” Burnett took the world and turned it into a living cartoon where satisfaction and fulfillment could be bought.

The ratio of truly memorable and effective work in the Mad Men era is horrendous, but not dissimilar to efforts today. This is Weiner’s overriding thesis for the show: Our world is similar in many ways to the one from fifty years ago, just shinier and glossier. Or new and improved.

Writing in, The Past Isn’t What It Used To Be: The Troubled Homes of Mad Men, Mark Taylor wrote “Mad Men’s producers reanimate 60’s iconography in order to level it.” Of course, I am writing about the amazingly accurate portrayal of the era through the costumes, hairstyles, sets, language, inside jokes, and pop culture references. On many episodes, I spotted an ashtray, chair, decanter, shag carpet, stereo, or poster that had once lived in my family home.

Combined, the characters and sets only emphasize how staged life was back then. Many of my friends’ homes in the 60’s and 70’s had immaculate living and dining rooms that no one was allowed to enter except on the most special of occasions (remember the plastic that adorned couches?). In essence, many of us lived on a television “set” while we watched the television set.

Manhattan acts as more than a backdrop in Mad Men, it is a multi-layered character adding to the show’s richness. The locales are meticulously researched but the show is shot in Los Angeles adding to the irony of image over substance – an ongoing critique of advertising. More than the center of the ad industry, New York was a hub for innovation; its famous department stores alone introduced ideas like window displays, designer collections, and branded shopping bags. Classic restaurants from that era are honored in the series including Lutece, Sardi’s, and the Four Seasons. The El Morocco, The Slipper Room, P.J. Clarke’s are among the bars singled out. Iconic Manhattan hotels appear including The Savoy Plaza, The Roosevelt Hotel (the first to include retail stores), and The Taj Pierre.

I have appreciated much about Mad Men, but it has been the narrative complexity of the storytelling that has appealed to me the most. It focuses on continuity over closure so I expect that not everything will be wrapped in a tidy and pretty bow at series end. This fractured form of storytelling makes Mad Men’s re-telling and re-evaluating of the past creatively inspired.

The immaculate 70s living room, image by army.arch via Flickr.

The immaculate 70s living room, image by army.arch via Flickr.

Major historical events in Mad Men are not presented as a coherent narrative because people’s lives are not portrayed in a traditional linear fashion. The re-telling and re-evaluating of history is provided through personalization. We experience history through the lives of Don, Joan, Roger and others. Glen Creeber, author of Digital Culture: Understanding New Media believes Mad Men is so successful because it is “able to balance and address the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ within one complex narrative trajectory.”

Weiner has repositioned history much like an advertising professional repositions a product. He is clearly fascinated with the 1960’s, but the show is meant to parallel the changes we have experienced in this last decade. Weiner is interested in knowing whether people in tumultuous times recognize the change going on around them.

At its most basic level, the series centers on capitalism, clear gender roles, the evolution of racial politics and unchecked hedonism. Those topics make for a great soap opera, but Mad Men’s appeal is in the search for deeper meaning and connection. All the struggles and conflicts that make up the storylines are predicated on a rejection of the status quo.

Don looks conformist in his ‘gray flannel suit’ and pork-pie hat but he is a rebel. As are Joan, Peggy and Roger. They seem to function within the lines, but they are drawing an entirely new picture. Each “moves forward” as Don advises, but they seldom care what is left in their wake. This behavior is reminiscent of the Tom Stoppard line from his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, “We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.”

The series is akin to an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. The characters are trapped in a world they have contributed to but one in which they desperately want to escape. Every episode has them running from their current circumstance only to land firmly back in it. Each lives a nightmare of their own making.

Many would argue that we find ourselves in exactly the same dilemma today. Consider this from Analyzing Mad Men: Critical Essays on the Television Series edited by Scott F. Stoddart: “Mad Men offers the schadenfreude-filled message that their predecessors were equally unhappy – and that the bleakness meter in American life has always been set on high.”

But if that’s what the show is about why pick on advertising? The answer is quite simple. The people in the industry were seen as colorful mavericks. They ran counter to the ubiquitous grey, drone-like middle managers that were the subject of sociologist William H. Whyte’s 1956 book The Organization Man. In Analyzing Mad Men, we read that “conformity was the enemy of creativity and, therefore, productivity” so ad men appeared highly productive and appealing as anti-heroes. Meaning a show that took place at IBM, Bethlehem Steel, or General Electric in the early 60’s may not have had the same sexy appeal. And we probably wouldn’t be talking about it.

Of course, we’re all impacted by advertising. It’s everywhere around us. And given Don’s bleak childhood, it helps explain why he chose advertising as his profession. In the worlds that Don crafts, he avoids the anxieties of the real world and simulates comfort and stability. According to French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, “All original culture forms, all determined languages are absorbed in advertising because it has no depth, it is instantaneous and instantaneously forgotten.”

I’ve often wondered what the reaction would be if Mad Men were broadcast during the 60s. How would those actually living then identify with or recognize themselves? Like Mr. Weiner, I was born in 1965, and also like him, I wonder if the “obsession is one based on and nurtured by representations of the period” rather than its reality. In the end, I believe Mr. Weiner is celebrating the era while at the same time exposing its contradictions and the confusion felt by those who lived it.

It seems ironic that the show has been delivered via television, a medium that has been accused (for decades) of declining in relevance. We should admit that television has been the essential storyteller of our times and has been reinvigorated (with equal irony) by Mad Men and its backer AMC. And soon the final episodes will play out on our large flat screens. Or on our computers. Or on some kind of handheld device.

As Don finalizes his quest and shares sage, yet flawed wisdom we will hang on his every word and action, no matter the medium. In this we will look for answers. Mad Men has forced us to reconsider our relationship with the past, and in so doing, challenged us to identify the differences from the here and now. When the final credits roll we will all agree that Matthew Weiner has proven his thesis: our anxieties, hopes, complexities and dreams are not that different at all.

Image via AMC

Image via AMC

The Books Behind the Show

For those who will miss the series I encourage you to read what is clearly source material for Weiner’s work. Start with The Organization Man by William H. Whyte previously mentioned. In terms of fiction, pick up Rona Jaffe who captures the plight of the working woman in The Best of Everything. Consume John Cheever’s short stories that delightfully skewer the fallacies of man at work and man at home. Engorge on Richard Yates’ work that brings a dark brooding to an era largely characterized as bright, simple and cheerful. This is brilliantly depicted in his book Revolutionary Road and well done as a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio.