MAY / JUNE 2011: BY KATIE S.
Madison Avenue is best known either for the New York Life Insurance Building or the fashionable high end shops that line its street, but in the 1950s and ‘60s it was populated with so many advertising agencies that the term “Madison Avenue” became almost synonymous with advertising itself. To be a an ad man on Madison Avenue was considered a glamorous job in a world that was quickly changing. It was a time of excess, of three martini lunches, expense accounts, and meetings in rooms filled with cigarette smoke, a time when sexism, racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism were accepted and commonplace. The United States was on the brink of war, a young new president and his lovely wife and children had just taken their place in the White House, and people were working to obtain the American dream of a car, house, a loving spouse, happy children and the products that proposed to give them just that. People consumed beverages, wore clothes, and purchased products on the promise of happiness each item would bring, all the while failing to realize the American dream they were striving for was carefully crafted for them by advertising agencies.
The 1960s were a revolutionary time for advertising agencies and the ways in which they went about branding a product. Television was emerging as a valid medium with which to reach the consumer, large tobacco companies, once considered elite accounts to hold, were becoming a liability with the release of new medical research, and many agencies were putting a lot more credence, as well as a good deal more money, into focus groups and advertising research than had been done in the past with the understanding there was more to what people wanted than what they said they wanted.
It is here, at this change in world outlook and practices, at the fictitious advertising agency Sterling Cooper that writer Matthew Weiner chose to set his award winning television show Mad Men, which views the past through advertising. It explores the relationships between the changing world and how those in the ad business work with, tweak and adapt their campaigns to it while simultaneously using the products and characters to further reflect the desires and developments of the age. After all, to look at a vintage advertisement is to see what was considered the ideal feminine figure, the perfect family, house, or cleaning product. It is to see what everyone wanted or what advertisers tried to tell them they should want. It is to view the past through a lens that is not entirely true but what people wanted to be true.
At its core that is what Mad Men is really about —what people want vs. what they say they want, what people believe vs. what they choose to do, who people present to the world vs. who they really are at their core. It is about truth vs. lies, fantasy vs. reality. It is about the lies the advertising men tell in order to make people buy the products they are trying to sell, how they make them believe it will fill a missing void, and how that affects the society and culture of the era. But more than anything, it is about the false front each character puts on every day not only as deception for the outside world, a form of advertising and branding in and of itself, but also as a practice in self deception. No one better represents this than Don Draper. On the outside he appears to have everything: he is handsome and charming with a beautiful wife and children, living an idyllic life in suburbia as he manages accounts and campaigns for products based on the desires of consumers. It is a job at which he is extremely successful, mainly because he is not all he appears to be. Donald Draper is in fact Dick Whitman.
As a child, we see the seeds of understanding the differences between what is true vs. what is represented planted when as a child he befriends a hobo who is promised payment after a day’s work. The hobo tells him the story of how he had a different identity with a family, home and job but freed himself and started a new life. Then, tossing a piece of chalk to the boy, he tells him about the Hobo Code, which is a series of symbols on gateposts outside homes that represent what is on the inside. A circle with an X represents a pie, which means “The food here is good,” a jagged line means “beware of the dog,” while a scythe means “a dishonest man lives here.” When Dick’s father refuses the hobo the money he has earned, Dick runs to the gatepost and pushes back the weeds to find it had already been marked long ago with the image of a scythe. Dick sees a symbol of dishonesty juxtaposed with the image of his dad.
Like the hobo, Dick tries to run away from his family, eventually ending up serving in the Korean War. When his Lieutenant, Donald Draper, is killed in a terrible accident, Dick sees an opportunity to cover up his unwanted past, switches dog tags and officially begins his life as Don Draper. He is good at his job because it requires him to invent desires, to understand the wants and needs of consumers and promise that a product will fulfill them. His job is to brand a product around a lie or a half truth, and he is excellent at what he does because he branded himself on a lie he lives out every single day. Don is the embodiment of what the core of advertising actually is. Even the name Don (to put on) and drape (to cover up) suggests all is not what it seems.
But the show is not just about Don. He is who we follow, the one who brings all the pieces together and solidifies them for the viewer. He is our medium for the entire message going on around him but at the end of the day each character serves to echo Don’s message of falseness in their own unique way. Everyone is putting forth something that is untrue, desperately trying to hide something America is not ready to admit or accept in a futile effort to convince themselves they are good people and are happy. As Don tells us, advertising is “a billboard on the side of the road that screams the reassurance that whatever you’re doing, it’s okay. You’re okay.” They live lives of falsehood, branding themselves as something they are not in search of whatever they think will bring them the happiness they ultimately crave.
Men like Don Draper, Roger Sterling, and Pete Campbell must hide multiple infidelities from their wives and pretend their marriages are happy ones. Copywriter Paul Kinsey espouses a number of Bohemian beliefs in an effort to cover up a background of affluence and Ivy League education, going so far as to date a black woman just to prove how progressive he actually is. For Peggy Olson it is a baby out of wedlock, along with the startling revelation that climbing the corporate ladder is far more exciting to her than the prescribed gender roles of the day. Joan, the office manager, believes she should be happy with her job, being admired as an object of desire by most of the men in the office. However, as the years go by, the novelty wears off and she has to do her best to contain her visible discontent.
But it is the character of Betty Draper that gives the most unsettling picture, for she illustrates exactly what the perfect woman of the 1960s was supposed to be: she has the house, the husband, the Grace Kelly looks, and the children society has told her will make her happy, yet she is a perfect example of self deception. When her neighbor Francine comes to her for advice because she suspects her husband may be having an affair, Betty is shocked and wonders why Francine would ask her to weigh in a situation she would know nothing about. She has successfully deceived herself into believing what she knows is untrue—that her husband is faithful. The realization that other people can see past the happy family image she has worked so hard to put up is unsettling to her. In another instance, on meeting a new neighbor who divorced her husband rather than put up with his infidelities Betty feigns concern for her children rather than admit this more independent, politically active woman has discovered something that shakes her to her core: there is more out there, the things society promised would bring happiness do not always work, a woman does not have to be just a housewife or put up with infidelities and pretend as if everything is perfect.
Time and again the characters and their hidden desires are used to reflect the products they are selling. “Everything he says means something else,” one woman remarks of Don. When the client Caldecott Farms, which makes dog food out of horse meat, wants the agency to rename the meat but keep the company name to help lessen public outrage over the product’s contents, Don tells the client “The product is good….but the name is poisoned… I’m not saying a new name is easy to find, but it’s a label on a can.” He’s not talking about the product, he’s talking about himself. Don Draper is the label he chooses to show the world; it gets him where he wants to go and hides what he doesn’t want others to see. When Don smokes pot with a group of the Beat Generation one of them tells him he can’t go outside while high as there are policemen out there. Dressed in his suit and tie, Don places his hat on his head and knowing he looks the part of an upstanding business man, exclaims to the unkempt looking beatnik, “No, you can’t” before walking out the door and passing a police officer who simply nods.
In many ways we are all Don Draper and in a sense the show Mad Men speaks to the viewer in much the same way advertising does the consumer. We think to ourselves, Thank God we are no longer like that, that we live in a more enlightened time, and we are no longer that selfish, or racist or sexist. We cringe as we watch the mistakes of the past and congratulate ourselves on being better all the while doing exactly as all the characters do… donning a false identity of happiness, success, fulfillment or simple indifference. Like an advertisement, the complete lack of morality shown by many characters on the show makes us feel better by comparison about ourselves and the lives we lead every day, covering up things we may be ashamed to let others see, no matter how small. It makes us feel the labels we’ve chosen pale in comparison. As Don so wisely said earlier, “It screams the reassurance that whatever you’re doing it’s okay. You’re okay.”
We become repeatedly frustrated with characters who never seem to be able to change and ask ourselves “When will they learn?” all the while often failing to realize that the message is equally as valid today as it has ever been. And so we keep on living the lives we are living, branding ourselves for the world, covering up the outside instead of changing the inside, all the while convincing ourselves that we are better than those who have come before us—more moral, more enlightened, that we’re beautiful, perfect, that what we’re doing is okay. But at the end of the day none of us is really any different than Don Draper. In some small way, in some small portion of our lives, some element of who we are is still just a label on a can, and as Don goes back to his office and shuts his door which bears the name he stole, it echoes the symbol carved into the fence post, echoes what all of know but few of us will admit in our lives filled with self deception: a dishonest man lives here. ■