“I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” first ran in February 1971 and became one of Coca-Cola’s most iconic advertising campaigns: A one-world, optimistic spot, with a simple song, a simple idea and a group of young people (allegedly) from all over the planet. It was coined by Bill Backer, the creative director for the soft drink company at McCann-Erickson. My friend and fellow critic Todd VanDerWerff theorized that the series might end with this spot last week, so it was already on my mind when I watched “Person to Person.” But even though he predicted the spot would close out the show, the how of it still completely surprised me. Don closes his eyes to engage in some hippie meditation yoinked from a third-world religion, allowing a soft, almost imperceptible smile to cross his face. And then the episode cuts to the first robust bars of “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” from the ad agency that Don Draper left behind.
I don’t know what “Person to Person” is supposed to be telling us, given that it’s the final hour of “Mad Men,” ever. It’s not subtle; it’s just really ambiguous. Maybe, when Don finishes his meditation, he stands up and walks out of the California retreat that he hobos his way into and gets on a plane back to New York City, with the fully formed idea for “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” in his head. Or maybe, when he finishes, he gets up to spend another day living a new, possibly purer life, as neither Don Draper nor Dick Whitman but whatever he is that is underneath both of those costumes. Neither path feels particularly triumphant—each is its own kind of pathetic failure—but we, the audience, do get our pick.
“Mad Men’s" finale borrowed a lot of pages straight from “The Sopranos” playbook: Ambiguity, a ritualistic bell, a seemingly tangential set of adventures, and did I mention ambiguity? I didn’t expect much better from the finale (nor do I expect a ton from any finale, really) but closure, whatever that might look like, was not really on the table for Don Draper.
Every piece of “Person to Person” was a bittersweet one. Don’s in Big Sur to find himself, but he got there because that's where Stephanie was going, not because he intended to go himself. (Remember Stephanie? She’s Anna Draper’s niece in California who went all-out hippie, and we haven’t seen her since she showed up pregnant at Megan’s house in the canyons. She’s about as messed up as she was then, but in a different way.) He finally finds out that Betty is dying, only to discover that none of them—Betty, Sally, Bobby, Gene—want him around for the inevitable denouement of lung cancer. He can’t show up without being a dick, because he’s Don Draper. So he gets very drunk and moves in the opposite direction, choosing not to show up at all. Joan starts her own business, at the expense of her relationship; Peggy starts a lifelong relationship, at the expense of becoming a partner in that business. The former woman’s breakup is predictably devastating. The latter’s long-awaited kiss, predictably schmaltzy. Roger and Marie Calvet face impending old age together in a tumultuous relationship that is both happy and a little desperate—Roger sets up his will with Joan, in their final scene, because he knows he’s on his way out. The Campbells embark on a ridiculous trip to Wichita in a private jet, eagerly and naively making a go of it once more. And Sally cancels her trip to Madrid, washing dishes in her mother’s house while Betty smokes a cigarette and reads the paper. Neither looks or speaks to the other.
If there is a deep meaning to the finale of “Mad Men,” it is that everyone has to settle. The grand expectations of the ‘60s give way to the disillusioned cynicism of the ‘70s—Charles Manson has people scared of hitchhikers, smoking can kill you, and the American-made car on the salt flats? It “shimmies” once you hit 130 mph. We’re all moving very fast, but it doesn’t feel like this machine is as well-made as it could be. And the guy whose job it is to sell us the machine—to convince us that it’s fulfilling our dreams, even when we can see it’s falling apart—he’s not doing a very good job of convincing himself, let alone the rest of us. So he’s responding by drinking the Kool-Aid of the upcoming era—chanting oms, of all things, like he has any comprehension of the Hindu ideal of all-encompassing, divine peace.
There’s a part of me that hopes that Don was able to find some kind of self-acceptance and closure through his meditation and chanting and therapy—to take his adventure entirely at face value, and see his adventure in Big Sur as Don learning that settling for being merely himself is not that bad. There’s also a part of me that doesn’t believe it could be that simple—surely “Mad Men” is not so naive as to be wholly credulous of the hippie, New Age spin on Eastern philosophy, even if Don Draper might be? And there’s a part of me that gets that one of the takeaways of the finale is showrunner Matthew Weiner reminding us that Don Draper isn’t real, but this era was (and in some ways, still is) very real.
“Mad Men” owes an enormous debt to “The Conquest of Cool” by Thomas Frank, a 1997 academic text that examines how what we see as the progressive, inclusive themes of the '60s were in fact outright manufactured by advertisers in order to mold a new generation of consumers and a new kind of “hip consumerism.” It’s a book that changed the way I thought about the era—and irrevocably affected the way I see advertising, too. It’s also a book that articulates the really awful truths underpinning “Mad Men.” Don Draper didn’t write that advertisement because someone named Bob Backer did; Don didn’t believe in his meditation at Big Sur because, among other things, he never existed. But people did go to Big Sur to attempt to make their lives better; people chanted “om” many times, hoping for peace and harmony. Irony and cynicism prevent us from really feeling that Don might have gotten somewhere with his meditations in California. But that’s just because we’ve all learned our lessons too well—if there is something true or pure or beautiful in the world, then someone has made it into an advertisement to sell a product. We distrust because we know better. We distrust, too, because we’ve settled—we’ve settled for a world of products and false narratives, of minor triumphs and mitigated defeats, because otherwise, all the rest of that stuff makes life really, really hard.
I left this finale believing myself to be disappointed in Don Draper, but I’m really disappointed with myself. Disappointed for this narrative of settling for the modern world—which, along with its many perks, like lower infant mortality and longer life expectancy, comes with a horrifying feeling of emptiness from time to time, as we all seem to strive to live an existence that is not great or searing but just OK, just fine, just good enough to get by. Most of us in the first world don’t go to bed hungry anymore—but as Peggy observed to the Burger Chef executives, “You’re starving, and not just for dinner.” Don and Peggy and Joan and Sally can’t really flame out beautifully in “Mad Men” because they are modeled to be people just like we are people, and yes, it is disappointing. Some kind of conflagration, of either the body or the soul, would have been so much more cathartic, so much more satisfying. It would have given voice to the roiling emptiness within. But instead we just get scenes from one more day in the lives of these people. One more day is all any of us ever get, until the day we don’t.
One line from Coca-Cola’s official history of “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” made me laugh. Billy Davis, the music director for the Coke account, had a problem with the idea for the spot when it was pitched to him. He said: "Well, if I could do something for everybody in the world, it would not be to buy them a Coke… I'd buy everyone a home first and share with them in peace and love.” Backer, the creative director, responded with one of the most confident, full-of-shit lines of spin in history: "OK, that sounds good. Let's write that and I'll show you how Coke fits right into the concept."
The thing is—and maybe this is the whole point of “Mad Men,” from selling cancer sticks to selling world peace—advertising can be lovely, in its own way. Selling a thing and believing it often go hand in hand. “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” is a fantasy, but it’s a beautiful dream: loving families, world peace, multiculturalism, homes shared in peace and love. It’s just that sometimes having that dream and not being able to realize it can corrode you from the inside out. The almost-nameless man in group therapy who starts sobbing while articulating the awful loneliness inside of him describes his life as a failed attempt to feel love: “You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it. People aren’t giving it to you. Then you realize, they’re trying. And you don’t even know what it is.” Advertising is narrative designed to make you feel you need something more to feel complete. The result is that it makes hollow, grasping fools out of all of us.
We have settled for our imperfect but comfortable world, with its complacencies and its blind spots. We have also settled for our fantasies to be nothing more than fantasies, for our fondest hopes to be merely strings within us that can be tugged by TV writers and corporate advertisers. We have settled for a world where our heroes are admen. Don Draper isn’t real, but the rest of it is all too familiar.