06 August 2008

Mad Men

mm People are always asking me what I think of Mad Men. That’s because for the last three or four years I’ve included a section in my presentations about the history of advertising creatives, and a big chunk of it focuses on the era Mad Men inhabits.

Now everybody thinks I do it because of Mad Men.

Someone left a comment on an Ad Age article that sums up my take on the show.  It went something like this:

“Mad Men is as much about the advertising industry as The Godfather was about the mafia.”

Great movies, The Godfather I & II. Classic tragedy, genius movie making. And I enjoy Mad Men.

jh However, as a rule I’m not a big soap opera fan – and Mad Men is primetime soap. My guess is that only about a fifth or sixth or less of screen time has anything to do with the wonderful world of advertising. Mostly it’s steamy bubbles. 

And that's fine. Probably better. It's sumptuously produced dark froth, brilliantly performed.  At times it morphs into classic tragedy and very good theatre.  Just as often it sinks into cliché silliness. 

Partly to ride the crest of the show’s success and partly to defend the industry, The One Club (along with The New York Public Library) is sponsoring an exhibition titled The Real Men and Women of Madison Avenue and their Impact on American Culture. AdRants’ Angela Natividad was there for the opening and has a fascinating take on it all

admen While it wouldn’t make good soap – Leo Burnett, Rosser Reeves, David Ogilvy, Shirley Polykoff, Bernice Fitz-Gibbons, Mary Wells Lawrence, Bill Bernbach, George Lois, and others were infinitely more interesting than the stereotypical characters on Mad Men. A series inspired by the lives and work of these real life ad folks would entertain me a lot more. Drama?  Sure. Comedy? Oh, yes.     

However, Mad Men doesn't pretend to be about the greats of 1950s/60s advertising – but about  the others who worked in the industry.  Your normal neurotic types.  They also represent a dying breed. If the series plays out with any nod to reality, they'll be picked off one by one.     

ct So enjoy Mad Men. Sterling and Cooper are good godfathers. Dan Draper is a good Michael Corleone. Pete makes a good Fredo. Betty is the perfect Kay.

And those creative team hit men do scare the bejesus out of me.


  1. I actually find that the show does make a lot of references to advertising firms and lets viewers in on how some ad campaigns come together. And I find it's more than a soap opera. I confess, I love the show and recommend it.

  2. I get a kick out of this show for the most part, Rhea. However, I'm not sure how much you learn about advertising - or about advertising in that era. I guess it depends upon how much you know already.

    My insignificant beef is simply this: Everyone talks about the sets, props, costumes, makeup, drinking, smoking. There are blogs out there where people have fun tracking down whether things like a certain typewriter was actually in use in 1960 – or was it really introduced in 1961? Was this or that dress in style in 1960? Or was it from a few years before or a few years after? I know the people working on the show do tons of research to make sure there are no anachronisms, that everything about the show is historically accurate. They screw up rarely.

    But now let’s talk about advertising. There’s nothing wrong with dramatic license. A creative director walking into a meeting with a major client with no pitch ideas coordinated with his writers and art director - I can’t imagine that ever happening. But that's fine. It’s dramatic license. It makes for real drama. No problem. I like it.

    But then a slogan is created on the spot for Lucky Strike: “It’s Toasted.”

    Problem is, that Lucky Strike slogan is from the 1920s – if not before.

    While the producers take great pains making sure all the dresses, suits, props, etc. are of the era, are historically accurate – they really don’t care about the advertising of the era being accurate. There are anachronisms galore. You’ll learn practically nothing about advertising watching Mad Men.

    And I don’t think the producers really care. And I don’t think the audience really cares. The show isn’t about advertising.

  3. Chuck,

    We don't have the series yet in Holland but if it's a hit in the US we're likely to get it here as well some day.

    The BBC had a great documentary called 'The rise and fall of ad men' in June. LINK I am desperately trying to find an online format of it but I'm afraid I haven't found it yet. I think it's definitely something you would enjoy and gives some good insight into the history of British advertising.

    The BBC has Mad Men on and they talk about it on the same page as the documentary I mentioned on here.
    Another article on your Mad Men show and the documentary can be found here.

    So look out for that title and I will see if I can get a digital copy that I can send some day.



  4. Thanks, Martijn. The first season is on DVD. I bet the movie rental stores in The Netherlands have or will have copies soon.

  5. Although I'm interested in the history of advertising, I haven't given this show much time. I've watched parts of several shows but always find myself clicking back to CNN or some other channel. This is probably just a personal idiosyncrasy, but I don't prefer to get caught up in serial soap operas. Further, I agree with Chuck that what I've seen isn't as much about the true history of advertising as it is about the lives of some interesting characters with the era as a back drop. For anyone interested in this critical period in the history of mass media advertising (and any professional in the field should be so informed), I recommend two action steps. See Chuck's amazing overview during his presentations; I've never seen anything like Chuck’s mastery of the history and implications for today's marketers. Then, if you want to dig deeper, read "The Mirror Makers" by Stephen Fox. In this book you'll read about the real people who pioneered advertising at the beginning of television (as well as those who came before), and you'll discover that the real people were as interesting as the soap opera characters who populate Mad Men. This industry was built by iconoclasts with big egos, so their stories are equally iconoclastic and large.

  6. Let me tell you more about what drives me nuts about this show.

    Sterling/Cooper is supposed to be a medium-sized independent agency in New York City. A fairly cutting-edge one. Not a creative revolutionary one like DDB, but still cutting-edge. It’s mentioned that Don Draper has a reputation for being one of the top creative directors on the block. McCann-Erickson tries to steal him away.

    Sterling/Cooper produces television commercials. The company has some very big accounts, some not-so-big accounts. They handle Nixon’s presidential campaign. They handle some silly weight-loss device. It’s all just like a real advertising agency. And all this in the first year of the show which takes place in 1960.

    The next season begins. It takes place in 1962. The company is pursuing American Airlines.

    Then there’s a sub-plot about one of the employees taking the initiative and trying to sell spots on a television show, “The Defenders”. It’s supposed to be a big deal, something special, that he brought in an episode to screen for a client.

    Then this guy meets with Cooper and says, “Sterling/Cooper should have a television department.” Cooper cavalierly makes the sign of the cross and says, “You are now head of the television department. And you’re the only one in it.”

    What??? This is an ad agency in New York City in 1962. They handle Lucky Strike, Right Guard, pursue American Airlines – and they don’t have a television department? And when one is created, it’s almost created as a joke? To make an employee happy?

    In 1952 – ten years before – cutting-edge ad agencies were making decisions about whether they should have television departments. Many major ones had them by then, with some holdouts. But by 1962, if you didn’t have a television department and you were in NYC – well, you were a specialized agency that was only dealing in print, probably. More than likely you didn’t even do radio. There’s no way a Lucky Strike would be a client. There’s no way an American Airlines would take you seriously at all.

    Yet, if Betty and Don Draper showed up for a business dinner in a dress and a suit from 1952 – can you imagine the hardcore fan outrage?