Style, intrigue, debauchery, panache. The hit TV series “Mad Men” has sparked nostalgia for a litany of tantalizing viewing pleasures. Flawed but fascinating characters - Don Draper, Betty, Joan - captivate because they navigate their intertwined lives with such finesse. Polished perfection in dress, speech and etiquette masks dysfunctional lives of deceit and jealousy, self-doubt and arrogance. Draper, the advertising firm’s golden boy, harbors a core deception regarding his own personal identity. But while concealing his dark secret, he loves his children and seeks to give them the ideal family life he was denied as a child. Neither purely good nor evil, the central characters wrestle relationships and careers in a glamorous 1960s lifestyle of cocktails, Park Avenue apartments, galas and jet-set vacations.
From our contemporary-based grainy reality TV point of view, this dazzling aura works its magic, recalling an era of greater innocence. “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” projected ‘60s ideals of perfection - storybook families in storybook homes leading storybook lives. Kennedy’s Camelot captured the youthful glamour and sunny optimism of the age.
“Mad Men’s” central spin is a metaphor for advertising, charming us with a vision of reality through rose colored glasses. Madison Avenue commands its “big bucks” by glorifying an ordinary product to make it desirable, weaving a web of magic - the pitch - to make the sale. “Mad Men” applies this strategy to ‘60s American life. The show’s critical acclaim - record-breaking repeated awards - certify it has successfully closed the deal.
The show is poised in an era of the fall from perfection epitomized in the repeated graphic, over opening credits, of a polished Draper’s dream-like endless descent - literal fall - thru a haze of Madison Avenue life. The post-war ideal late ‘50s lifestyle was beginning to show its cracks. Beneath society’s perfect veneer, “Mad Men” reveals the underlying “madness” - characters trying to cope, in therapy, bolstered by ubiquitous alcohol, cigarettes and drugs. “Storybook” couples have affairs and get divorces.
Society in the ‘60s was also beginning to show its cracks, from Vietnam to racism and civil rights. Peggy is a flash point for a more socially aware society. Women’s rights and sexism come to the fore as she grapples with her role in a “man’s world” and how far she wants to change her identity to fit in. She also metamorphoses - with diva Joan’s mentoring - from duckling to more polished swan, seeking the era’s ideal of perfection in dress, relationships and lifestyle while wrestling with the legitimacy of those very values.
Madison Avenue’s advertising force awakens as society becomes more self-reflective during this era. The psychological power of mass campaigns, importance of branding, subtleties of image and message are all being honed. These lessons are still relevant today. By today’s standards ‘60s advertising may appear somewhat naïve. Selling Heinz beans and women’s “transparent” hosiery to today’s more sophisticated consumer would require more finesse.
Today’s society is awash with advertising - Internet, TV, radio, billboard, print, infomercials, celebrity endorsements and “guerilla advertising” such as product placements in films and DVDs. By some estimates today’s average consumer is bombarded with 2000 advertising messages each day.
More competition means more noise. The message must stand out more just to be heard above the din. But certain rules of the game are still the same. The message must ring true. It’s a central paradox of advertising. Although an obvious pitch, the advertising message must hit home. It must touch the consumer. In Don Draper’s words, “Trust me, I’m in advertising.”