I’m late with my “________ represents the last decade” think piece, because every time I thought about the topic, the television drama Mad Men leapt to the front of my mind. I think the show is incredibly well-crafted, but it’s overwhelmingly white and didn’t do much (anything?) to interrogate that whiteness. With everything that’s happened over the last ten years, I wanted to write about something that reached farther and deeper. Even so, as I trawled around for topics, I kept ending up in the same place and finally gave up the struggle.
My recollection of Mad Men wasn’t organic. The show has been turning up in my Netflix recommendations and is firmly ensconced in the “Watch It Again” queue. Netflix’s recommendations aren’t solely based on subscribers’ viewing habits and ratings. If they were, shows I’d given a thumbs down wouldn’t be on the “Recommended for Kitanya” list. There is an element of promotion and advertising at work. The advertising logistics of a giant entertainment conglomerate are what got me ruminating about the denizens of a fictional 1960s Madison Avenue advertising agency. In addition, I’ve been thinking about advertising more generally for some time. It’s the language of capitalism. It’s what creates the demand for the supply. It’s the mechanism through which we take on the goals of corporations as our dreams for ourselves. It’s propaganda much of the time.
Mad Men’s first episode “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” opens with its central character, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), an advertising executive at Sterling Cooper, sitting in a smoky bar scratching out ideas on cocktail napkins. Most of the patrons, including Don are smoking. Don strikes up a conversation with his server about his favorite brand of cigarettes in an effort to understand what the man likes about smoking. He’s scrambling for ideas for a campaign for the tobacco company, Lucky Strike – his agency’s biggest client. He’s supposed to give a presentation the next day and is stumped. Don later goes to try to wring more ideas out of his girlfriend Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt), a no-nonsense artist, who is up late illustrating when he arrives. The news smoking causes lung cancer has been putting a damper on him for years, and there are new regulations cracking down on “safer cigarette” marketing. The next day, a psychologist who works for the firm’s research department discusses with a scathingly condescending Don the notion of tapping into the psychological drive of the “death wish” as a way to market cigarettes to people who know they are poisonous. That’s the struggle Don has been having: How do you package and market death? Don’s epiphany comes just as the executives from Lucky Strike are about to walk out of the disastrous meeting. “We can say anything we want,” he informs them as he bins the worries of the health claims — they don’t matter, because advertising is about happiness and reassurance. Don is a liar. When he heads home to his wife, Betty (January Jones), at the end of the first episode, we know that much for sure.
Mad Men examines existential crises of identity and the sleights of hand we play to mask them. It’s a show about lies and people who tell large ones for personal reasons and a living. The traumas being repressed are as focused as a single person’s anxiety about work and as broad as a nation undergoing violent upheaval involving foreign wars and the assassination of political leaders. The spectre of Death lurks from the opening title sequence, which features a faceless man in a dark suit plummeting from a skyscraper. Spinning the fiction that Death can be ignored or escaped provides much of the characters’ kinetic energy. Don is a dead man. Literally. Don Draper was killed in Korea, his body burned beyond recognition. The handsome, square-jawed advertising executive in the grey suit is his subordinate, Dick Whitman, who switched their dog tags and assumed his identity. Mad Men is also about impostors and the play acting that goes along with upward social mobility. The ability to fit in convincingly is more important than any credential or qualification. Don looks and can speak the part, and that uninterrogated whiteness I mentioned is a big part of why he’s allowed to carry on his charade even after it’s discovered. Anyone who couldn’t wouldn’t get their foot in the door. The main product Don sells daily is the concocted version of himself. His impostor syndrome is based in reality: he isn’t who everyone believes him to be.
The shame attached to Dick Whitman and his impoverished, difficult origins is excruciatingly palpable at moments during the series. The façade of Don Draper threatens to and does split at the seams. All the alcohol he consumes catalyzes most of the breakdowns. Besides all the smoking, that was something else that was shocking to watch from a 21st century vantage: the sheer amount of hard alcohol being poured down gullets at work. Throw a stone and you’d hit an alcoholic, and the social requirements of their job demanded the self-destructive behavior. The projection that Don and his comrades in advertising loved a good time was an integral part of the fantasy. The opening title card of the pilot of the series read:
A term coined in the late 1950’s [sic] to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue.
They coined it.”
Advertising isn’t insurance adjustment. It’s creative and fun, and the “Mad Men” were going to let everyone know it. Tapping into their creativity is an ongoing struggle for Don and his colleagues. They’re constantly looking for exactly the right image and the clever turn of phrase to drive home its emotional thrust. “IT’S TOASTED.” Don scrawls on the chalkboard during his meeting with the Lucky Strike executives. “But everybody else’s tobacco’s toasted,” says one of the executives. “No,” Don retorts. “Everybody else’s tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strike’s is toasted.” That hide-the-negative-externalities game of three card monte has bled out of advertising shops and onto the avenues of social media. Brands often don’t need expensive ad campaigns cooked up in fancy offices in Midtown, Manhattan.
There are “Mad Men” creating content about products they enjoy all day every day on social media. They will defend their problematic faves viciously. The conversation Don has with his server about the joys of smoking isn’t necessary anymore. I suspect lurking on social media to skim the cream of other people’s ideas off the top is how some advertising and marketing companies are keeping the lights on. This development is something I’ve been mulling over for some time. The language of advertising, of selling, has infiltrated everything. Advertising aesthetics and speech are like a reverse Tower of Babel — a universal translator that allowed Coca-Cola to be marketed in remote villages all over the world. It’s become everyone’s second language. We all instinctively understand how to reduce nearly everything to a commodity that can be sold.
The right slogan can create impetus. The simpler, the better. For worse, one of the most successful slogans of the 2010s was “Make America Great Again.” It may yet shape the 2020s. It’s the rallying cry of Donald Trump and the supporters who swept him into the White House. The “great” America they wish to disinter is a post-World War II era during which the American middle class exploded, and a slew of Dick Whitmans metamorphosed into Don Drapers (without the false identities). Sprawling suburbs sprang up, where women stayed home to mind children and make homes. Mad Men captures that iconography in the show’s painstaking attention to period details. There is a beautiful Donna Reed-worthy surface, but the ugliness lurking just beneath that veneer peeks out. It’s never genuinely confronted though. Don’s wife, Betty, was educated at Bryn Mawr College, speaks Italian fluently, and her presence in his life is one of the important stamps in the passport that allows Don to travel freely and climb upward in the world he’s infiltrated. The most important characteristics that grant passage, however, are whiteness, cis-maleness, and straightness — all of which are narrowly construed. These are the anchors of the “great” America trying to be reclaimed presently. It’s not quite that simple, though.
From its opening sequence, the hierarchies in Mad Men are clear. The server Don strikes up his cigarette conversation with is an older Black man, who is chastised for being “chatty” by a white supervisor. Don rebuffs the supervisor and continues his conversation. The next morning, Don’s new secretary, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), starts her first day at work. On her way into the office, she’s leered at and sized up by a group of predatory young executives. Don later bonds a little with Peggy over their mutual wariness of the leader of the pack, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), whom Don later tells off brutally. Don isn’t so much “modern” as he’s looking after his own self-interest and not fussed enough to bother with putting his back into oppressing anyone. He throws out anti-Semitic deli jokes about the firm’s lack of Jewish associates, while preparing for a meeting with Mencken’s, a Jewish-owned department store. “I’m not going to let a woman talk to me like that,” he says as he storms out of the meeting huffily after being challenged by Rachel Mencken (Maggie Siff), who rejects his vision (coupons for housewives) for her family’s store, which shares a wall with Tiffany’s. “I want your sort of people,” she tells Don. The kind of people who don’t worry what things cost, who will go to a store because it’s more expensive. She doesn’t realize Don is a counterfeit. The kind of people she’s talking about are Pete’s (his family has been in New York since the colonizers were Dutch) and Roger Sterling’s (John Slattery), whose father co-founded the firm.
Mad Men fetishizes a very specific kind of Northeastern American WASP identity. That is the echelon of whiteness Dick Whitman assimilated into after becoming Don Draper. When Rachel references Chanel as the standard she’d like to meet, that’s what she’s reaching for too. The thing Don and Rachel have that can allow them passage is taste. They’ve learned and understood the class markers. Peggy’s climb from the secretarial pool to account executive throughout the series shows the metamorphosis. There is an episode in the second season of the show during which the young executives at Sterling Cooper all feel they must find the right thing to say about the abstract Philip Rothko painting the firm’s co-founder, Bert Cooper (Robert Alan Morse), acquires. These kinds of tests abound and are land mines in the world of Mad Men. The show treats them as such. Even Betty isn’t spared. When, propelled by her dissatisfaction in her marriage, she purchases an enormous, hideous fainting couch that despoils the mid-century modern redecoration of the Draper living room, she’s marked as old-fashioned — a death knell in Don’s world, where you have to stay just ahead of changing trends. Don knowing exactly where to place a lamp is a sign that he’s worthy. Later in the series, Betty is remarried and living in a dark, wood-paneled mansion, and Don is living in a spacious, airy Fifth Avenue luxury apartment. They both have the lives they want, and neither of them are particularly happy, but Don’s life is more glamorous and worthier of envy.
The women in Mad Men are punished, largely for not being what the men in their lives want. The leering misogyny absolutely rampages from the first episode onwards. Peggy has an ill-advised affair with Pete and doesn’t realize she’s pregnant until she goes into labor. She has a mental breakdown and has to be institutionalized. Don cheats on Betty shamelessly, and she’s constantly humiliated. She’s diagnosed with cancer as the series ends. Rachel has an affair with Don, who breaks her heart. She later dies of cancer (off screen). Midge becomes a junkie, who tracks Don down, so she and her husband can scam money out of him. Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), the office bombshell, whose administrative expertise, charm, and management skills are integral to keeping the firm running smoothly, gets her share of the firm (of which Don is now a name partner) by accepting an indecent proposal to sleep with a prospective client.
While the dearth of Black characters in Mad Men bothered me, I’m glad they weren’t introduced fully into the show’s dynamic of punishment. Think of how cruelly Betty jettisons, Carla (Deborah Lacey), her children’s Nanny since birth, for allowing Sally (Kiernan Shipka) to say goodbye to a friend Betty disapproves of before they moved away. It was a signal that Pete would get a redemption arc when he tries to have a client’s ads placed in Black magazines like Jet and angrily defends Martin Luther King, Jr. None of Roger’s roguish charm takes a hit after he does full-on, shoe polish Blackface to provide entertainment at a bizarre, almost John Lynchian garden party. Can you imagine how they would have made a Black recurring character suffer to wring emotional growth out of a one of the white male leads? I’m glad someone had enough self-awareness to realize they didn’t have the range to write about racism with any depth. Even so, hiding from that conversation in a show about the upheaval of the 60s was particularly troubling in the 2010s.
Another slogan that will define the America of the 2010s is #BlackLivesMatter. It mirrors the “I Am a Man” placards of the Civil Rights era. The killing of Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012 and the subsequent acquittal of his killer sparked outrage. The Ferguson Uprising, where #BlackLivesMatter became part of America’s national vernacular, was sparked by the police killing of Mike Brown and happened in August 2014. Mad Men ran until May 2015. There were plenty of opportunities to use the lens of the late 1960s to have a meaningful discussion about current events. How insulated the characters in Mad Men were from it all, how easily some of the characters were able to keep making money and failing upwards is a commentary on white liberalism, but it’s too kid-gloved to be meaningful. From the opening of the show, Don is presented as “not so bad” compared to other white men. He’s a lothario, but he’s not a creep. He’s racist, but joking and glib about it. He almost never does the right thing, but he’s never made to take responsibility and atone for his mountain of lies and deceit. He’s rescued and forgiven at every turn, because there’s always someone worse lurking around the corner.
In a way, Mad Men makes a clear statement about who is worthy of standing up for and rescuing: only people who can assimilate into elite, Northeastern WASP culture. Everyone else is spoiling the clean lines of the modern design. Knowing what to say about a Rothko is still a test. That’s why, in spite of its deferential homage to a white male-dominated America, Mad Men didn’t appeal to the MAGA crowd. It’s too literary, too Ivy League. They know they’re the Dick Whitmans of the story — what gets left behind for the bright lights of the big city — and, as Don is told teasingly by his youthful second wife, Megan (Jessica Paré), “Nobody loves Dick Whitman.” The irony is that the leaders of the MAGA movement despise the Dick Whitmans of the world. Some MAGA devotees have learned the hard way that their role is to chant the slogan not reap any gains from it. The “great” America being shaped will exclude them too.
Mad Men’s series finale closes with Don in a hippie commune. He’s disappeared and hasn’t reported to work in months. He’s been on a journey of self-actualization, trying without much success to wrestle with some of his inner demons. As he’s meditating in the sun one day, he has an idea: “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.” The series closes with the famous commercial playing, and it’s accredited to Don. That’s his reward: one of the most memorable ad campaigns of a generation. The fantasy is important: that this mediocre white man who lacks character and work ethic is one of the best in the world at what he does. The real question is: given enough chances to screw up horribly, what could each of us become? The final shot also captures Don’s ethos: He can only sell. Even his own journey of self-reflection gets folded in on itself to help Coca-Cola sell more fizzy sugar water. That universal language of advertising — capitalism’s tongue — co-opts and commoditizes everything. That’s another way Mad Men speaks to America’s last decade.
Local activists who led the Ferguson Uprising keep turning up dead, some under suspicious or even violent circumstances. A few out-of-towners have moved on and parlayed their peripheral involvement into national platforms, book deals, and speaking engagements. Nike has glommed on to Colin Kaepernick and his protest against racialized police brutality to move apparel that isn’t made ethically. #ClimateStrike is a late entry for an influential slogan of the 2010s that will likely continue to gather steam. The embrace Greta Thunberg has received globally should be contrasted to the physical violence and even murder climate activists, particularly Indigenous people protecting their homes, face. In the 2020s, the greenwashing of capitalism will begin in earnest and work in tandem with the whitewashing. The coup in Bolivia to oust its Indigenous president and secure the nation’s lithium deposits for use in batteries for electric cars and other green technology is the bell weather. If Mad Men had been set in the present day, perhaps the haze choking everyone would be car exhaust not cigarette smoke, and the impending climate apocalypse, not lung cancer, would be the crisis Don was tap dancing around. Consumerist apathy that dodges or sanitizes pressing social issues isn’t organic. It’s ordered by executives like those from Lucky Strike and delivered by agencies like Sterling Cooper, which are staffed by men like Don Draper.
Originally published on my Patreon.