From the Wilds of Mahattan
Welcome to the Jungle:
Is Mad Men Really about Advertising?
Copywriters who went to Princeton. Scotch before noon. Male chauvinism daily from 9 to 5. True or false? Um, yes and no.
If there’s one thing Desk Jockey hates more than writing about television, it’s watching it. Why any inhabitant of the world capital of dining and culture (i.e., New York) would spend even one evening sitting home watching So You Think You Can Dance is beyond his comprehension.
Yet once a week, Desk Jockey clears the deck, plumps up the sofa cushions, stays up past his bedtime (10 p.m.), and turns to his favorite—actually, his only—television show outside the Weather Channel’s Local on the 8s: Mad Men. Because not only is Desk Jockey fascinated by the lives of these ad folks, he belonged to this unusual subspecies for 25 years.
What does Mad Men get right about advertising?
Just in case you’ve been seconded to Kuala Lumpur for the past three years, AMC’s hit television show Mad Men is the tale, set in the early 1960s, of Don Draper, a slick New York creative director of an uptight advertising agency. He is impeccably dressed, looks like a million bucks without doing an ounce of exercise, and invariably comes up with a winning slogan or the right response to a client—on the spot.
How accurate is all this, anyway?
Desk Jockey became an ad man about a decade after the 1960s. So while any comparison betweenMad Men and the 12 advertising agencies he visited is not entirely apples-to-apples, many of the things he sees on the show strike a familiar chord.
1. The rags-to-riches saga – Peggy Olsen, the young female copywriter, rises from secretary to professional on the basis of a few stray comments she makes while clearing the boardroom table. True.
2. The smarm-osity factor – Best seen in the weasel-like Pete Campbell, scion of an “old” New York family. Desk Jockey has heard that usually the second- or third-born son of such families often became advertising account executives, after the first-born became a lawyer at a white-shoe firm or a stockbroker. True.
3. The creative process—On the show , this can include anything from ripping off the opening scene of the film “Bye Bye Birdie” to smoking marijuana all weekend at the office to generate advertising campaigns. Absolutely true.
4. Art directors as second-class citizens – In the 1950s and early 1960s, writers were considered the “idea men” who often handed off their scribbles to a sketch artist who “comped” them up. This process soon became as dated as Leave it to Beaver once the creative agencies waxed powerful in the mid-1960s. Very true.
5. The breezy arrogance of the agency owners – Specifically, Roger Sterling, vice president of Sterling Cooper, belongs to a fabulous all-white country club, does nothing all day but drink and have affairs with secretaries. But he invariably pulls a witticism out of his pocket at just the right moment. True.
6. The unbearably dreary client dinners – An elite gathering of executives who wouldn’t recognize a New York City subway turnstile if they fell over one. So true.
7. The adultery – Don Draper, suave and debonair, would confidently bed any woman, agency- or client-side, who gave him a second look, regardless of his pregnant wife and two children at home. Check.
8. The ageism– Men who are over 40 either get their names on the door, or get shown the door. Still true today. (Ask Desk Jockey sometime after three glasses of Shiraz.)
9. The all-white factor – Desk Jockey notices the only cast members who are not white and middle- to upper-middle class are the elevator operators and the maid in Don’s home.
What does Mad Men get wrong?
Even though he “climbed over the wall” (i.e. left the agency business) eight years ago, Desk Jockey remembers his own 25 years all too well, an era when politicking, brown-nosing, and idea-stealing happened as often as a sneezing fit during goldenrod season.
Yet, as he runs to the refrigerator during Mad Men’s all-too-frequent commercial breaks, he often ponders the tidbits that he sees on the show but that don’t hang true. First of all, one single middle-brow agency like Sterling Cooper would not have 40 accounts. Second, creative directors in most of Desk Jockey’s 12 agencies rarely wore suits, nor did they hold idea-generation sessions with the real “suits” (the account executives.)
So what is “Mad Men” about, then?
The more Desk Jockey has watched Mad Men over the past three seasons, the more he’s realized that the show is really not about advertising at all.
The real subject of Mad Men is that it is about a place in time—New York in the early 1960s—that is a precursor to our modern era. The show captures a moment smack in the middle of the puritanical, conformist 1950s, and the wild and woolly live-and-let-live 1960s, a decade that in Desk Jockey’s mind did not really begin till the arrival of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.
The opening credits are a dead giveaway. Don’s silhouette is seen tumbling off a skyscraper, as if to suggest his whole world is coming apart. And for many grey-flannel-suited executives transitioning from the 1950s to the 1960s, it was. Civil rights demonstrations, sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll, the emergence of women from their stereotypical roles—all these were threats to the established order, and are brilliantly yet subtly portrayed during every episode of Mad Men.
It seems to Desk Jockey that Matt Weiner, creator of Mad Men, believes that advertising reflects a society’s culture. So however society is moving, for better or worse, advertising is moving with it. Serious stuff.
The additional genius of Mad Men is its wealth of insights into the corporate world beyond advertising. Even though Desk Jockey is now in the widget business, he still sees evidence of male-chauvinism, bigotry, and office politics. Employees over 40 and 50 are routinely terminated without warning. The discrepancy between the “haves” of the company and the “have-nots” is palpable. You don’t have to come up with a single slogan for a detergent to notice.
Where’s all the fun?
The one serious bone Desk Jockey has to pick with Mad Men is that it does not really portray the joyousness of the agency business before agencies went public. Nor does it touch on the humanity of advertising people. Desk Jockey met some of the brightest, wittiest, kindest people he’s ever met in his life in the advertising business. These were people he invited to his home, who worked hard, didn’t lie or sleep around, and were generally models of integrity. Maybe Desk Jockey was lucky.
Yes, we worked till 2 a.m., but we were surrounded by people who loved to laugh and do imitations from 1930s films. We went to parties and ran into other advertising people with whom we discussed books or foreign films we wanted to see. We attended rock concerts on Pier 42 together and went to bad movies like Showgirls during office hours. We took four-hour lunches and stretched two-day focus-group trips into weeklong junkets. In short, we had fun.
Life in advertising was not always the Anacin headache it is shown to be on Mad Men.
Will Desk Jockey stop watching Mad Men? Only when it gets cancelled.
Desk Jockey, like every ex-advertising person, may moan and groan about how great “the business” used to be, and pick apart Mad Men scene by scene, but truth to tell, he is hooked on the show. He can’t wait to see how the Kennedy assassination will change the agency forever, or how soon miniskirts and chignons will appear on the female characters. He is dying to know if the British will advance in their invasion of Sterling Cooper, or beat a hasty retreat.
Whatever happens, Desk Jockey is sure of one thing. He’d rather watch the goings-on of an advertising agency, than be back in one, any day.
August Cosentino is a professional writer who cycles passionately, eats discriminately, attends theatre religiously, Facebooks constantly, and as the photo indicates, is as good to his mother as he was to his father who passed away in 2012. He lives in Manhattan with his two carbon-fiber bicycles, and G.
ARTICLES BY AUGUST COSENTINO
AIRMAIL – From the Wilds of Manhattan
The End of the Bucket List
Fifty Shades of Pain: Cycling the Pyrenees, One Mountain Pass at a Time
Go West Young Desk Jockey
Greece: It’s a Riot
How Many Facebook Friends Are Too Many?
Marylebone and Me
The Sandwich Generation: Eldercare and Me
Scandinavia, The Great Escape
Welcome to the Jungle: Is Mad Men Really About Advertising
Work Like Wall Street: Earn Like Main Street