Will the swinging '60s crush our "Mad Men"?

A huge culture shock awaits Sterling Cooper. Here's a look at the "creative revolution" that hit the ad world

Published August 11, 2009 10:17AM (EDT)

"Mad Men" followers debate how each season will begin as obsessively as they discuss how it will end. That's because we know, as the characters do not, that their world, whose customs and values seem so settled and inevitable, is on the verge of a series of profound shocks. We've watched them through the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and we know what national trauma awaits them the following fall; we want to see how they'll handle that, too. But the series' creator, Matthew Weiner, has already stated that he has no intention of depicting the Kennedy assassination dramatically. The aftereffects, yes, but not the part that these people will talk about for the rest of their lives whenever someone asks them where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

No doubt more upheaval awaits the characters of "Mad Men" closer to home: Which of the women will be the first to read "The Feminine Mystique"? Whose relative will die in Vietnam? Who buys the first Beatles album? Chances are, though, that Weiner will find all these familiar milestones a bit too on-the-nose for his understated, Cheeveresque drama. More intriguing is how he'll portray something that people in advertising have called the "creative revolution," a shakeup of industry philosophy and standards that peaked in the late 1960s. The profession at the heart of "Mad Men" is in for some big changes, and chances are the gang at the Sterling Cooper agency won't weather them very well.

For a glimpse of the craziness about to descend on Weiner's creations, hunt down a used copy of Jerry Della Femina's "From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor: Front Line Dispatches From the Advertising Wars," a memoir of sorts. "Of sorts" because it reads more like the transcript of a tape made at a bar or cocktail party with the recorder propped up next to the raconteur at the center of the crowd. Della Femina launches directly into a cheeky rant (about how advertising is not "all very Tony Randall" -- presumably a reference to early-'60s sex comedies starring that "suave" actor as an ad man) and then segues into one indiscreet anecdote and riff right after another, such as the time TWA encouraged several agencies to spring for substantial presentations when they weren't seriously considering any of them. (A variation of this behavior scuppered the career of Duck on "Mad Men.") If you'd like to find out who exactly Della Femina is, where he comes from and why he's telling you all this -- the basic meat and potatoes of autobiography -- I suggest you visit Wikipedia, though god only knows how the digitally deprived readers who made Della Femina's book a bestseller when it was first published in 1969 managed to orient themselves.

Della Femina and his ilk -- brash, young and irreverent -- were the winners in the "advertising wars" of the 1960s. Most of the folks at Sterling Cooper won't be. When interviewed about the show, Madison Avenue veterans like George Lois and Mary Wells Lawrence have complained that the industry wasn't as buttoned-down, as sexist or as boozy as the series depicts it. And maybe it wasn't, at least not from their perspective, but Lois and Lawrence were also among the victors of the creative revolution, young Turks who kicked the likes of Roger Sterling and even Don Draper to the curb. "Sterling Cooper is not cutting-edge," Weiner explained when the New York Times Magazine asked him about their objections. "It's mired in the past."

Signs of Sterling Cooper's old-school propensities include more than just leering at and condescending to secretaries or midday tête-à-têtes with Johnny Walker. There's the casual anti-Semitism (seen in the firm's discomfort when taking on a Jewish retailer as a client in Season 1) and the fact that the agency's TV department was created solely to humor copywriter Harry Crane after he marched into Roger Sterling's office to protest being taken for granted and underpaid. Oh, how behind the curve Sterling Cooper is in that! According to Juliann Sivulka, author of "Ad Women," a history of women in the business, the agency Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn (BBDO) had a TV-division staff of 150 a full decade before the action in "Mad Men" begins.

Much like the comic book industry in the 1940s, the cutting-edge advertising agencies of the 1960s benefited from the fastidious WASPiness of Madison Avenue's mainstream. They hired frustrated, talented Jews and Italians who'd been shut out of tony operations like Sterling Cooper. "I interviewed at J. Walter Thompson for the Ford account," Della Femina told the Times Magazine, "and was told, 'We don't want your kind.' It took me two years to figure out that he meant I wasn't a WASP." If "From Those Wonderful Folks" is any indication, Della Femina is the opposite of Don Draper: voluble, madcap and confiding to the point of indiscretion.

No adman played a greater role in the creative revolution than William Bernbach, who co-founded Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) in 1949. In 1959, DDB produced the "Think Small" campaign for Volkswagen, the cause of much bafflement among the young copywriters of Sterling Cooper but voted the No. 1 campaign of all time by Advertising Age in 1999. Bernbach's opposite number was David Ogilvy, once the most famous advertising executive in the world and author of "Confessions of an Advertising Man" and the revered manual "Ogilvy on Advertising." Where Ogilvy emphasized exhaustive research and a rational appeal to the consumer -- one of his mottoes was "the more you tell, the more you sell" -- Bernbach aimed for the emotions, insisting, "you can say the right thing about a product and nobody will listen ... you've got to say it in such a way that people will feel it in their gut." No ad did this more effectively than DDB's harrowing "Daisy" commercial for Lyndon Baynes Johnson's 1964 presidential campaign.

In a new biography of Ogilvy, "The King of Madison Avenue," former Ogilvy & Mather CEO Kenneth Roman (who worked with Ogilvy for 26 years) acknowledged that his former boss had his best and biggest ideas in the 1950s and took forever to "appreciate television and the power of music in evoking emotion." Although Ogilvy's most famous campaigns -- the eye-patched Hathaway Shirt man and "Schweppervescence," a soft-drink quality bestowed on a grateful America by a dapper British colonel -- employed a certain whimsy, he was most influential in direct mail advertising, where bombarding the customer with information remains an effective tool. Tellingly, Ogilvy himself considered his best work to be a full-page, all-text ad explaining the tax benefits to be had by locating a factory in Puerto Rico.

Like Ogilvy -- "the product of a print generation," according to Roman -- the crew at Sterling Cooper still thinks of advertising campaigns in terms of magazine and radio ads, in words rather than images. (What disgusts them most about the "Think Small" ad is how much white space it "wastes.") Yet Don, with his often enigmatic and lyrical pitches, has more than a little Bernbach in him. In his presentation to Kodak for its new slide projector, he rhapsodizes over a parade of photographs of his own family, "This device isn't a spaceship. 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 'the wheel.' It's called 'the carousel.' It lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved." Similarly, he tells a roomful of cigarette makers that "Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance: Whatever you're doing, it's OK. You ... are ... OK."

The difference between Don and the new breed of advertising professionals about to descend on the world of "Mad Men" is that the emotions Don plays on are anxious and nostalgic ("freedom from fear" being one of the "four freedoms" that FDR championed in a speech rallying the nation to the cause during World War II). "Think Small" and the ads produced by Bernbach's protégés in the late 1960s wooed customers with the dream of a new way of life that was cooler, wittier, freer, more fun. An exemplary campaign is the one Mary Wells Lawrence designed for staid Braniff Airlines after she left DDB to work for a wacky advertising "think tank" with its headquarters situated in a hotel.

In her diverting 2002 autobiography, "A Big Life in Advertising," Lawrence explains that she was in an airport waiting for a flight and found the scene unbearably drab, all the planes white and the terminals a dispiriting "greige." So she had Braniff's "hostesses" outfitted in wild uniforms designed by Emilio Pucci and the planes themselves each painted in one of seven brilliant solid colors. The catchphrase, which was more an addendum to the visual pizazz of the makeover than the guiding principle of the campaign, pronounced "The End of the Plain Plane." The result was exhilarating, if light-years away from the rational approach of Ogilvy. Apple Computer got a similarly giddy boost by using the same trick when it introduced its candy-colored iMacs in 1998.

Lawrence was incontestably a star, but when, in 1966, her boss offered her the authority and salary of an agency president but not the title, he told her "the world's not ready for women presidents." She promptly quit and founded her own agency with two young male co-workers. Wells, Rich and Greene proceeded to colonize big chunks of America's pop culture vocabulary; they were responsible for "Plop plop, fizz fizz," "I can't believe I ate the whole thing," "I [heart] New York" and "Friends don't let friends drive drunk," among other catchphrases. By 1969, Lawrence was the highest-paid woman in the world and reputed to be the highest-paid executive in advertising.

As Sivulka writes in "Ad Women," one of the biggest changes in the advertising industry over the period between 1960 and 1968 was the increase in women employees by one-third. By 1983, more than half of the people in the business were women. Peggy Olsen of "Mad Men," so recently graduated from the secretarial pool to copywriter (and now with her own office!), serves as the exemplar of this revolution at Sterling Cooper, yet she's no trailblazer. Agencies as traditional as McCann Erickson had women vice-presidents (not just copywriters) by the early '60s, and Jane Trahey had opened her own agency (they did the "What Becomes a Legend Most?" campaign for Blackglama furs) as early as 1958. Advertising firms were more open to promoting women than other companies because appeals to women -- the primary purchasers in most households -- lay at the center of their business.

Sterling Cooper demonstrates its tardiness in gender relations as in everything else with its proposed Jackie/Marilyn campaign for Maidenform in Season 2. After first breaking down the office's entire female population into Jackies and Marilyns (with Peggy the odd woman out, of course), the boys devise a campaign promising that Maidenform's lingerie can cater to both the diurnal good girl and the nocturnal vamp in every woman. It's a retread of Revlon's famous ads for Fire & Ice lipstick from the early '50s, summarized by one Revlon executive as "a woman is hot and cold, good or bad, a lady and a tramp." Copy for another lipstick shade, Cherries in the Snow, from around the same period cooed, "Who knows the black-lace thoughts you think while shopping in a gingham frock?" (It's probably an indicator of the perversity of our age that a gingham frock with a white bra under it now seems kinkier than black satin over black lace.)

Most of the male characters in "Mad Men" wrestle with whopping madonna-whore issues, which is why Peggy (who falls into neither camp) barely registers as female to them. Any drift in the categories freaks them out. When Betty Draper surprises her husband on Valentine's Day by prancing around in a black corset, he can't even get it up (no doubt he was preoccupied with his adulterous S/M affair with Bobbie Barrett). He also scolds Betty for buying a bikini, claiming it makes her look "desperate."

Weiner has cited both Helen Gurley Brown's "Sex and the Single Girl" and Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" as significant sources for "Mad Men." In an interview with Variety, he recalled rereading these two influential books and recognizing that they represent "more than 50 percent of the show." Brown preached obsessive careerism wrapped in a candy-coated sex-kitten shell, while Freidan debunked housewifery as sufficiently engaging life's work for educated, middle-class women. Yet it's difficult to imagine Peggy (definitely "mouseburger," to use Brown's famous coinage) attempting anything quite so daring as Brown's collection of bedpost notches, or Betty suddenly deciding she needs a job that amounts to anything more than sitting still and looking pretty.

Personally, I'm hoping for the day that Peggy gets fed up at Sterling Cooper, walks and takes with her not a couple of schmucks from the copy department but the magnificent, smart, tough-as-nails Joan Holloway, who could beat both Brown and Friedan at their own games if she only put her mind to it. Together, they'd be unstoppable. (Sadly, Lawrence did no such thing, and later in her career she was criticized for rarely hiring women.) They could even bring in Pete Campbell to handle the smaller accounts. Given Weiner's distaste for the obvious, "Mad Men" is unlikely to end in such blatant wish fulfillment, but a girl can dream.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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