‘Mad Men’ and the Rise of Corporate Marketing

By Rob Patterson

I came to Mad Men late in the game. The AMC TV series set in a Madison Avenue ad agency some 50 years ago had already reaped a slew of awards and had been touted to me by some friends by the time I started watching its first season on DVD, just a bit before its third season’s episodes ended.

Even as I started watching its initial episodes, it came to me slowly. I kept wondering up to about the middle of that first season where the dramatic traction was.

Then it started to percolate. I’m hooked. Or maybe better put, sold, because part of the show is all about the growth of the big sales job. And maybe as well the sale of a whole lot of big lies that have today come home to roost.

It’s one of the most stylish and historically accurate shows ever on television. I can safely make that claim of veracity as I first came into consciousness about the world around me at the point where the show begins in mid 1959. Having been born in 1954, at that time I was approaching six years old. The first season ends around the Kennedy/Nixon presidential contest, the first one that I experienced.

The Mad Men team takes great pains to give the show the look and feel of its time — the culture and society, the products, the fashions and the ways people behaved. At first on the surface, but as it progresses the undercurrents start to bubble upwards and become evident.

In doing both, it illuminates much for this now 56-year-old man. I see the seeming American middle class dream I was born into. It takes me back to where we thought we were. It was a time when, for those of us born into the sort of social milieu it depicts, America seemed like a place of goodness, normality and prosperity that would only get better. That’s how it looked to this man as a kid, and how it looks at first on the show.

Mad Men starts there as the series begins, and then the façade starts to crumble. Things begin to reveal themselves as not quite what they seem on the surface. Most of the characters smoke cigarettes, which have already been shown to be hazardous to human health. They drink often and heartily in the days before rehab became a fact of life and drunk driving was a major social concern. Men were in charge and women were largely housewives and secretaries. The products that Madison Avenue was selling us were supposed to make life easier and better.

Main character Don Draper is the creative director and eventually junior partner at Sterling Cooper ad agency, the picture of business success in the city and family normality at home. And he emerges to be the symbol of what seems to be and then what really is.

In showing us how it was, first both seemingly and then as the series progresses how it really was, Mad Men also makes plain how far we’ve come. In some ways it sheds light on genuine progressions, especially in the treatment and roles of women. The “girls” who work at the agency are second-class citizens and sex objects who were treated as such by the executives, and wives were subservient to their husbands. But change is imminent, and the show plays a nifty trick in having secretary Peggy Olsen rise from mousy newcomer to ad copywriter.

The agency’s art director, Sal Romano, is a closeted gay man who struggles and eventually suffers from the attitudes of the day regarding his orientation. With both feminism and gay rights, Mad Men brings into sharp relief how things have changed for the better. (To wit, the show has a largely female staff of writers, a rarity even in TV today.)

But it also displays ground zero of the rising corporatism and go-for-broke salesmanship and marketing culture that has brought this nation to its many points of current crises. In that, Mad Men is one of the most deliciously subversive shows to ever grace the small screen in addition to all its other merits.

It’s must-see TV indeed not just for its fine acting, drama, writing and look. Mad Men shows us who we thought we were and where we are and where we started and now became what we are as a society and culture. And for all that, it’s truly monumental entertainment.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@io.com.

From The Progressive Populist, Febuary 1, 2010


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