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Three Random Observations on the Mad Men Season Six Finale

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.