‘I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company. It’s the real thing…’ The real thing doesn’t really exist. It was made up by Madison Avenue ad men and sold to America for the low, low price of our souls. Or at the very least, our minds. But the genius of “Mad Men” the television series is not a cynical portrayal of an even more cynical profession. The genius lies in its truth. And the truth lies in what we need.
Don Draper, played with exquisite perfection by Jon Hamm, is the ad man or ‘mad man’ everyone loves to love. He’s a charismatic, dashing man of men. The men envy him and the ladies want him for their own. He’s strong and decisive. He makes no apologies – he lives hard and loves/lusts without regret. He lies to almost everyone, but what he doesn’t know is that he lies just as much to himself.
For anyone who hasn’t seen the show, I’ll warn you that you will be sucked in and transported back to the ’60’s with exacting realism. The clothes, the decor, the music, the sexism and racism, the smoking and drinking, the lack of four letter words. It’s mind boglingly accurate and what a decade it was! So far, the best description I’ve heard of the 1960’s is the title of Tom Brokaw’s book, “Boom!”. Society explodes and everyone finds themselves scattered and dazed, lost, looking for something they can’t yet define. And it’s up to the mad men to define it.
Seven seasons kept me busy for quite a while but you don’t have to go all in to appreciate the appeal of this cultural beauty. Creator Matthew Weiner waited fifteen years to get this episodic made but it was worth it. The story arc and main theme of the show deal with the lies we tell and the lies we accept from others without scrutiny or much thought at all.
Don Draper sells himself to the world as a farm boy turned confident executive, as smooth as a good whiskey and as transparent as smoke. And that’s where our story begins, with Donald Draper pitching the ad campaign for Lucky Strikes Cigarettes. “…Advertising is based on one thing – happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with assurance that whatever you’re doing, it’s okay. You are okay.” No one says it better than Don.
The genius in advertising is that it tells us we want something we didn’t know we wanted or even needed. It hides the truth because the truth is ugly and scary and that is how Don feels about himself. He’s not good enough, he’s not okay. His real life story, raised by a woman who hates him because her husband impregnated his mother, a prostitute, isn’t fit for public consumption. Later, after his father dies, which he witnesses, he goes to live in a whore house in which his now pregnant step mother must work in order for them to survive. Nobody wants that on a billboard.
The shame Don Draper hides so well ultimately reveals itself at the most inopportune time, during a pitch for Hershey’s chocolate bars. And what’s more American than Hershey’s? A better question might be, what’s more American than a broken heart soothed by Pepto-Bismol, Alkaselser or Jim Beam brought to you by your favorite advertising team?
What can unify a society more than a song about Coke? Yes, a war. In Mad Men the war is not used purely as a metaphor for the characters’ inner conflicts. It’s historical fiction, real and unreal, all of it seen through the eyes of people just like us, fearful and confused.
War features prominently in the series through a multi-generational lens. Ad man Roger Sterling refuses to take on a Japanese client because of his WWII service. Don steals his C.O.’s identity after he’s accidentally killed when Don drops his lighter in gasoline spilled during an air strike. And Vietnam polarizes the country when it’s revealed that the government had been lying to us all.
What can we learn from Mad Men?
Here’s some of the things I learned: We are our own worst enemy. Our insecurities make us easy prey that Capitalism, in it’s most perverse sense, encourages. That the people who think up these jingles and tag lines are often the most dysfunctional of us all. That all we need is love. That love is what everyone, without exception, desires most of all, and that the lack of it adversely affects us and everyone who touches us. And finally and most importantly, that we are all searching but only some of us find the door.
You see, t.v. can be educational.