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James Lileks


June 24, 2013 - 9:06 pm

2. A Side Note

The reason this show caught on quickly wasn’t just the unapologetic celebration of the Era of Smoking and Hats; it was the ad-agency setting. A look into the laboratories of the Hidden Persuaders, as Vance Packard called them. You know, the secretive, manipulative geniuses that made you think you wanted a car by showing you an ad with a really great-looking car. Much has been written about the new wave of advertising that changed the industry in the Mad Men period, how it was a time of incredible creativity that broke all the old paradigms, and brought stark, witty, sophisticated concepts to an industry that previously showed women swooning over fridges like St. Theresa in the Bernini statue.

All true. But by 1968 — the year in which season six was set — magazine ads had gotten quite ugly. There’s a proto-70s cheapness to the ads; the wit is strained, the attempts to be “with it” are embarrassing. The counterculture in advertising had already run its course, and there wouldn’t be a new idea until the 80s.

The best episode that actually concerns advertising — nice, that, for a show about advertising — was the face-off between Peggy’s team at that other agency, and Don’s pitch. Each was perfect. One made the product prominent by its absence; the other exalted the product by defining Heinz as the Ur-Ketchup, the Platonic ideal.

What Heinz actually ran in ’68 was something that could have run in ’49 — except it would have been more colorful, had illustrations instead of photos, and copy that assured you how wonderful things would be if you let Heinz into your life.

The second-best episode about advertising concerned the creative flood that swamped the office when everyone was jabbed in the buttocks with vitamins and meth. Don, high as a kite flown by a stork on the Empire State Building observation deck, comes up with a grand meta-campaign for EVERYTHING based on a woman with a mole on her cheek, like the woman in his flashbacks.

Abe and Peggy think he’s nuts. We’re meant to side with Abe, the Unhappy Jewish Cliché, and Peggy, whom all the viewers root for because she has a scrappy side! and she’s better than everyone, even though her personality can be boiled down to a furrowed brow and suppressed irritation. But Don’s right. Advertising is about feeling validated and accepted by the arbitrary mother-figure in a chaotic whore-house. Watching the scene was like talking to a good friend who’s taken a lot of . . .  something, and has this brilliant idea, and the more you listen the more you think he’s probably right, but it’s so big, so bright, so broad, it’s useless.

But what if Don had convinced every client to tie into his uber-theory? All the disparate brands and products, from cars to OJ to cigarettes to lawn darts to airlines bound together under the kind gaze of Big Mother? It would have been a branding mission unlike any other, flowing from the fevered genius and damaged soul of one man who grasped the truth of advertising: it’s the biggest lie of our lives, the least harmful, the happiest, and the only lie we know has some truth.  A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine. That new car will make you happier the day you drive it off the lot. That cigarette is milder than the other. There are so many truths no one would bother to believe unless they were wrapped in a sweet shiny lie.

A lie in a hallway! Okay, let’s get to the finale.

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All Comments   (3)
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I've always seen"" Madmen" as sort of "The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit" looking out on his "View from the Terrace" and seeing "Woodstock". That of course being the original pitch that got it greenlighted.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Your analysis is excellent. In the end, this entire show is all about the evolution of Don Draper. Even the title. It is about his flaws, failures, triumphs, and humanity. What other show (forget Die Hard) uses its star as such a punching bag?

The scene at the end was poignant. His daughter in a way functions as the audience as whole, and finally begins to see her father as a real human being, not the Madison Avenue image.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
You should recall that season 5 finale was all about doors. Every scene but one began wilth one of the characters coming into a room or office by opening a door, except for the last scene where Don exits through a large opening into a bar and ordering a drink, signifying I suppose Don's changeover from his attempt at a normal relationship with Megan and life in general.

But, the show is losing itself in its own self-parody.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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