Ad absurdum and the conquest of cool: Canned flattery for corporate America

We're suckers for "Mad Men" and slick '60s odes to authenticity. And in the end we're just that -- suckers

Published December 22, 2013 12:00PM (EST)

Suppose we decide to take a look at the '60s from a fresh perspective. Suppose we start not with politicians, or soldiers in Vietnam, or civil rights protesters, or Woodstock performers in their fringes and flares, or with the charmingly tongue-tied Forrest Gump. No, let’s say we start instead with advertising executives. And suppose we approach these admen, their works and the whole crazy whirl in which they lived as objects of nostalgia — as symbols of a bygone world that is comforting just to think about.

That was my idea back in 1991, when I started working on my doctoral dissertation. I thought there was something sweet and innocent about Kennedy-era advertising, with its dainty society women sipping Pepsi and its tail-finned cars bearing men in stingy-brim hats about their smiling business.

What I was really sentimental about, though, was the critique of advertising that was so common during the '60s. According to this view, the advertising industry enforced an alarming pattern of conformity, molding us into a nation of unthinking robots. There was even a sense that prosperity itself was hazardous to our spiritual health. By the 1990s, these worries seemed kind of quaint — the stuff of vaguely remembered church sermons about materialism, of old Life magazine articles about mass society and suburban alienation. How easy it had been, back in those days, to see what was wrong!

Nostalgia is not history, however. Eventually I got over those warm feelings about the reassuring past and discovered something I thought was even more interesting: that as the '60s went on, the advertising industry absorbed this critique and even enlisted it as a weapon in the eternal war of the brands. Worries about conformity became a linchpin of consumer society, echoed in endless advertisements and TV shows. This was the thesis of what turned out to be my first book, "The Conquest of Cool," published in 1997.

I had overcome nostalgia, then. But as soon as I ventured out on the lecture circuit, nostalgia overcame me in turn. Far more interesting than my theories, it seemed, were the old ads themselves, which I would present with a slide projector. What people wanted to talk about were the family cars of their childhood, or a beloved Lite-Brite jingle, or that commercial for something or other. Did I remember that one?

* * *

A few years ago, a friend phoned me in a state of considerable agitation. He had just seen an episode of "Mad Men" in which the main character — an advertising executive named Don Draper, whom we follow through the tumultuous '60s — takes his family on a picnic. They’ve driven to the park in his brand-new 1962 Cadillac, with food and drink in the cooler, and at the end of the episode, they simply toss their trash on the ground and leave.

My friend was annoyed because he thought the scene a crude anachronism. Wasn’t it unrealistic to portray an adman of the day as such a casual polluter? People from all walks of life littered, I replied, but yes, it was strange to tar an advertising executive with that particular brush, given that the industry was doing high-profile pro bono work for the Keep America Beautiful campaign during that very era.

I didn’t see the scene myself until a few months ago, when I finally sat down and watched 70 back-to-back episodes. And now I know what everyone else in America knows: that the show is fueled both by nostalgia and by its seeming opposite, a self-righteous superiority toward the benighted people of the past. In its romp through the '60s, "Mad Men" gives us not only those beloved old ads but fantastic cars, perfect clothes, tastefully decorated houses, handsome men, beautiful women, fondly remembered songs. And then it takes careful note of the many ways in which our parents failed to live up to the polite standards of today.

These people are bad. Not only do they litter, they smoke — on airplanes, or when they’re pregnant. They let their kids play with dry-cleaning bags, they don’t bother with seat belts, and they slap children not their own. They drink and drive and drink some more, and say mean things, racist things, leeringly sexist things. They probably coat their nursery walls with lead paint too.

Were this all that "Mad Men" delivered, we could dismiss it as generational triumphalism of the usual kind. But the show doesn’t stay on this well-trod path for long. The exaggerated wickedness that suffuses the first few seasons eventually diminishes. What persists is the purple haze of nostalgia, along with a certain larger strain of criticism. In fact, "Mad Men" is saturated with references to the same “mass society” critique I myself once viewed so fondly.

Take the picnic scene. It finally dawned on me that this wasn’t just another bit of self-congratulatory comedy but a dramatization of a famous passage from John Kenneth Galbraith’s "The Affluent Society" (1958). A family goes for a drive in a fancy car; litter and “commercial art” (i.e., ads and billboards) are everywhere. They proceed to picnic on “exquisitely packaged food from a portable icebox” and go to sleep “amid the stench of decaying refuse.”

Other vignettes lean no less heavily on the literature of consumer society and suburban anomie. The Draper family’s life in Westchester County, for example, could well have been drawn from A. C. Spectorsky’s 1955 book "The Exurbanites," with its cast of conforming, commuting, boozing, womanizing ad executives. There are references to films such as "The Apartment" (1960), with its lampooning of corporate sexism, and "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957), a tale of organizational madness whose main character swipes the identity of an officer who dies next to him in battle, just like Don Draper. And the show’s central conceit of sending a world-weary individualist wading through the swamp of falsehood that is the advertising industry was first developed by Frederic Wakeman in his 1946 bestseller "The Hucksters."

The people of "Mad Men" are lonely in the heart of the crowded city; in the suburbs they are sick from boredom. The women have been programmed to pursue superficial beauty, the men to run on an endless career treadmill. Everyone is so sad in this postwar paradise. The characters’ eyes constantly glisten, as though they’re just about to bawl. They are afflicted with ulcers because their lives are needlessly stressful, or with numbness of the hands because they have forgotten how to feel. They are forever vomiting, no doubt because they suffer from acute existential nausea (at one point, Don attends an avant-garde play in which the beer commercials on TV make an onstage Everyman barf). And when one of the admen is driven — finally, inevitably — to hang himself, the note he leaves behind is a form letter announcing his resignation from the agency.

* * *

"Mad Men" has a reputation for extreme verisimilitude, and in certain categories — the costumes, the office interiors, the décor of the various Draper abodes — it has certainly earned that distinction. In other respects, however, the show is littered with anachronisms. The worst of these is the title itself. According to the text that appears onscreen prior to the first episode, “Mad Men” is a “term coined in the late 1950s to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue. They coined it.” Just about everyone has since accepted this etymology, and it is now commonplace to read references to the “Mad Men Era” in advertising.

I myself had never heard this phrase before. Clowns of Commerce, yes. Ulcer Gulch, sure. But how had I overlooked Mad Men? A Harper’s Magazine researcher and I asked five admen who were prominent during the '60s whether they recalled hearing their colleagues referred to as Mad Men, and all of them said no — some with a certain vehemence. We also contacted three well-known academic historians of the period; again, the answer was no. We tried Martin Mayer, author of "Madison Avenue, U.S.A.," the authoritative 1958 book on the industry, and got the same answer. The only instances of the phrase that we could find from Don Draper’s heyday occurred in a 1957 Saturday Review article and in an obscure novel published the next year, both of them by one James Kelly. That his pet coinage spread no further is hardly a surprise, since the ad industry of the day understood itself as a rational, even scientific, enterprise rather than a hotbed of lunacy.

The show’s treatment of the ad game, which is its nominal focus, is also surprisingly weak. "Mad Men" is set during what industry insiders called the Creative Revolution, when advertising professionals stopped bowing and scraping before the client and overturned the traditional language of advertising itself. This big change is alluded to many times but never addressed in earnest; indeed, the show can’t make up its mind about which side of the revolution its characters are on. In the initial episodes, Don Draper seems to be a Madison Avenue reactionary, crafting Unique Selling Propositions out of nothing. He disparages the most inventive campaigns of the era (like the Volkswagen ads produced by Doyle Dane Bernbach); his agency is “traditional” and apparently anti-Semitic; it employs a psychological researcher of the kind Vance Packard made notorious in "The Hidden Persuaders" (1957).

Later on, Don appears to have changed completely. He walks out of his firm when it is swallowed up by a public-relations conglomerate and opens a “creative agency,” delivering risky sales strategies and dismissing clients who fail to grasp what the Great Genius dreams up. But even with the new-and-improved Don in charge, the show retains its '50s understanding of ad agencies as places of canned flattery for the owners of corporate America. And the only selling we ever see is when Draper and his dipsomaniacal gang pitch their ideas to the client — a performance at which Don is supposed to be almost mystically gifted. The far more momentous act of selling to the general public is pretty much left to our imagination.

What we have, then, is a polished office drama with meticulously observed period costumes. It could have been set in an accounting firm or a defense contractor as easily as an advertising agency. So why pick on Madison Avenue?

Because the adman is the consummate vehicle for both types of nostalgia. He was a modish figure, and thus the perfect mannequin upon which to drape those sack suits and period references. He was also one of the great evildoers of the age, the symbol of everything that people believed was wrong with American capitalism. If you think — as the show’s producers clearly do — that the mass culture of those days denied people’s individuality, or made them stupid, or sickened them with pointless consumption, then the adman is the bad guy for you. “Madison Avenue has replaced Wall Street as the whipping boy,” said a prominent adman in 1966 (in an article that is, of course, mentioned in "Mad Men"). “There has been a transference of villainies from the principals to the agents.”

Despite this villainy, Don Draper seems to be just about the only one in the show’s enormous cast who knows that it’s all make-believe — that “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.” Which, in some perverse way, makes Draper the most upright man there is, a brave independent surrounded by stuffed shirts and yes-men.

The other alternative, by the standards of the '60s, was to reject consumerism altogether, a fantasy that was in those days usually projected onto the counterculture. This option is hinted at countless times in "Mad Men," but it is stated most forthrightly in Season 5, by a left-wing Canadian intellectual who is the father of Don’s new wife. “This apartment, this wealth that someone handed to you — this was what Karl Marx was talking about,” he lectures his Americanized daughter. “And it’s not because someone else deserves it. It is because it is bad for your soul.”

* * *

Actually, this wasn’t what Karl Marx was talking about. The idea that mass affluence posed grave perils for the bourgeois soul was mostly associated with American social critics during the great postwar boom. This was what William H. Whyte was talking about in "The Organization Man," and what Paul Goodman was talking about in "Growing Up Absurd," and what Charles Reich was talking about in "The Greening of America."

This postwar critique was quaint enough when I began pondering "The Conquest of Cool" in 1991. By the time "Mad Men" began its run, in the summer of 2007, it was obsolete in nearly every particular. Mass affluence and excessive leisure time weren’t problems any longer; decades of union-busting and “free trade” had seen to that. The Organization Man and the good jobs that made him possible were disappearing. As for the “whipping boy” of the corporate order — less than two weeks after the first episode of "Mad Men" aired, the financial world was shaken by the collapse of two Bear Stearns funds that had invested heavily in complicated mortgage-backed securities. The second season appeared just as another tranche of impossible-to-understand financial instruments pushed the global economy out the skyscraper window — bankrupting such enterprises as General Motors, the colossus of Don Draper’s world.

No wonder we longed for the problems of postwar mass society: Those were corporate sins we could actually comprehend, and that we found downright soothing to contemplate. As the economy buckled, Americans tuned in to "Mad Men" in increasing numbers. The show’s loving indictment of an affluent society spoke to us in tones of libidinal fascination. Forget credit-default swaps or the misanthropic billionaires of Greenwich: Tell us again about man’s search for meaning or the sweet alienation people felt when they shopped at some suburban grocery store stocked with the cherished brand names of our childhood.

Faced with incomprehensible disaster, we viewers chose to dream about a lost capitalist paradise in which individualism was something both brave and profitable. And while we did so, capitalism as it actually exists was melting everything solid and familiar into air — the way it does in the retro title sequence of "Mad Men" — leaving us to tumble into an abyss of dubious and desperate memories.

An edited version of this essay originally appeared in Harper’s magazine

By Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank is a Salon politics and culture columnist. His many books include "What's The Matter With Kansas," "Pity the Billionaire" and "One Market Under God." He is the founding editor of The Baffler magazine.

MORE FROM Thomas Frank

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Advertising Don Draper Jon Hamm Mad Men Nostalgia One Percent Organization Man