Mad Men and Made Men

AMC’s new series could have been the Sopranos of advertising. It’s not.

Mad Men

I have no professional beef with Mad Men—the new AMC show set in 1960 at the fictional advertising firm of Sterling & Cooper—for the way it portrays my humble forebears as hard-drinking, womanizing, amoral slime buckets. I’ve always had a morbid fascination with the way my embattled industry is treated in popular culture, and amoral slime buckets is pretty much par for the course.

Nor was I overly disturbed by the rather obvious errors the show makes about the advertising business. For instance, there’s no way, even back then, that the leaders of an agency would make veiled anti-Semitic remarks to the Jewish daughter of a potential client for wanting advertising that was too “promotional.” (Ass-kissing is a revered tradition in our industry.) There’s also no way that management would ever walk into a big client meeting—in this case, for Lucky Strike cigarettes—without seeing the creative work in advance. Such faux drama might make for a good episode of Bewitched, but a show that so clearly aims at verisimilitude, as Mad Men does, should know better. 

Still, these errors could easily have been forgiven if Mad Men had lived up to the promise of its pedigree. The show is the latest from Matthew Weiner, a writer and executive producer for The Sopranos, and given the piercing psychological acuity of that show, I approached Mad Men with higher hopes than usual. I figured that even if it got some stuff wrong, it might do for advertising what The Sopranos had done for the mob. Namely, capture the industry at a moment of profound change and offer a more nuanced portrait of the men doing the dirty work than our popular culture usually allows for.

But Mad Men, in its firstfew episodes at least, is gripped by no such ambition. It traffics in heavy-handed stereotypes, with no greater goal than to elicit some knowing winks and nods and to inspire nostalgia for those pre-sexual-harassment days when secretaries were secretaries and not administrative professionals. It’s a screenwriter’s fantasy: Cue the martinis, stick a cigarette in every actor’s hand, trot out the standard-issue 1950s clichés about ambitious young men and marital infidelity, stir well, and you’ve got yourself a show. 

This is a particular shame, because Mad Men could have been so much more. There is a complex drama yet to be written about the transformation of advertising in the 1960s. Advertising is both a mirror and a change agent for our culture, and the American consumer was a very different creature in 1963 than he had been in 1958.

Beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the WASPs who had long dominated advertising were beginning to find their privileged world threatened. One of the characters in Mad Men notes pointedly that Jewish agencies sell “Jewish products to Jewish people.” But Grey Advertising, an agency started and run by Jews, was awarded echt gentile Proctor and Gamble business in 1956  in the form of the Lilt home-permanents account, and P&G would eventually become a hugely important Grey client. Milton Biow, an advertising legend and a Jew, had built what was by 1952 the industry’s eighth-largest agency, with accounts like Pepsi and Philip Morris.

But what really changed in the 1960s, profoundly and permanently, was the medium’s sensibility. It was the Creative Revolution, and the agency primarily responsible was Doyle Dane Bernbach. Suddenly, advertising replaced its beat-you-over-the-head, hard-sell approach with a new, more sophisticated syntax and vernacular. Bill Bernbach taught a generation of clients and creative people that there was a different way to sell products and create awareness and loyalty. Rather than formulaic slice-of-life commercials and product demos, DDB created ads fueled by humor, irreverence, and even self-deprecation. Bernbach was the first to have writers and art directors work together, the way composers and lyricists do. Previously, the writer would come up with a headline, and it would be sent down to the art department, where they’d come up with a corresponding visual. The result was a leaden literalness.

Breakthrough advertising like Volkswagen’s “Think Small”—launched by DDB in 1959—could have been created only by a copy-and-art partnership. The elliptical but evocative headline tells only half the story by itself—it’s not until the headline is mated with the layout, showing a small shot of the VW Beetle on a page with a lot of white space, that the radical, anti-Detroit positioning and philosophy leap out.(The VW campaign would become a stem cell of modern advertising: There’s a direct genetic link between it and the Apple “Think Different” campaign.)

What must it have been like to be at the real Sterling & Coopers of the time—the protestant fortresses of SSC&B, Lennen & Newell, N.W. Ayer—as this revolution began? These were the cocky guys from Greenwich, suddenly seeing their world approaching a kind of chaos, as a new generation of advertising came into being. Jews, Italians, gays (many still closeted, of course), and women were coming into the business on the creative side, shocking the conformist culture. In 1967, Mary Wells, for whom I worked, started Wells Rich Greene and soon became the highest-paid person in advertising and the first women to run a NYSE company.

If Mad Men put its conventional story line of power and lust in this roiling context, the show would be far more intriguing. It was a similar tension that had worked so well for The Sopranos. Tony’s was a world of great change, and the attendant social and personal stresses are what brought unexpected levels of depth and even poignancy to the show’s depiction of a character who might otherwise have been just another ruthless killer.

Perhaps in future episodes, Mad Men will broaden its themes and really run with the opportunities afforded by its historical setting. I hope it does. Mad Men joins a long list of books, television shows, and movies—Ex-Lady, Bewitched, Nothing To Lose, Putney Swope, How To Get Ahead in Advertising—that have used the industry and the ad guy as palimpsest. Not all of them have become enduring works of art, and very few have ever matched the achievement of John Cheever’s 1960 short story “The Death of Justina”—the advertising tale to beat all others. Yet the themes that make advertising such endlessly fascinating source material—the struggle between business and creativity, the art of shaping desire and creating mythologies around products—are still very much with us.

Indeed, advertising today again finds itself in a mad state of flux, as the fragmentation of media, the decomposition of traditional audiences, and the explosion of online advertising promise even more radical changes to the industry than those of the 1960s. This lurching to the unknown has released its usual smell of fear into the air. A show that could tell us something about how the world was changing in advertising in the 1960s might also have something to tell us about our own time. 

I don’t know what the Mafia thought of The Sopranos, but people in the ad industry would love to have their own version of the show. And I think the general viewing public would as well. If the historical record of popular entertainment is any measure, they’re every bit as fascinated by people who sell for a living as those who kill.