Published On: Tue, Apr 15th, 2014

Mad Men: Truth in Advertising

Watching the first season of Mad Men was like flipping through a dozen John Cheever short stories: three martini lunches, chasing the secretary around the desk and then home to the wife and kids in the suburbs. Oh, to be a commuter in those days! I admired the complexity of the plot: Don Draper, successful adman with a pretty wife and assorted mistresses, is actually a country bumpkin who swapped identities with a dead officer while serving in the Korean War, before relocating to New York and reinventing himself. This is a perfect metaphor for the deceptive slogan “truth in advertising”. No one is who they seem. The Kennedy-era fashions were an added attraction: white-collar men never dressed so elegantly and those curvy secretaries in their garter belts and pointy bras – Ooh la la!

The series had many memorable episodes and rightly garnered numerous awards. It is now back for its final season, but the initial glow has faded.

Don Draper and his wife in Mad Men – 1960’s cool

My enthusiasm began to wane during the fifth season. The philandering hero, Don Draper, seemed awfully compulsive in his skirt-chasing and his three-packs-a-day and excessive drinking were creating health scares. His wife became shrewish and his children were in obvious need of twice-a-week therapy. Don divorced and remarried and then started a new company, but this did little to relieve his angst. For a show about the devil-may-care 1960’s, no one was having much fun.

I vaguely remember my own parents from this era. They were much more upbeat and positive than these folks. They worked hard but also got boozy with friends on Saturday nights and then woke up hung-over on Sunday mornings to take us kids to church before starting another workweek. They were not nearly as dour or introspective as the perennial malcontents of Mad Men. They took what life gave them and then got on with it.

I also happened to grow up in a commuter town like the one portrayed in Mad Men. I even knew men who were successful on Madison Avenue. Yes, some were divorced or had drinking problems, but most worked hard for thirty-five years and then retired after raising good families with the help of a good wife. If there was hanky-panky going on, I never happened upon it; although I assume it occurred in places. I was just a toddler in the 60’s, so my memory of the breakdown of the nuclear family really begins in the 70’s when the counter-culture came home from college in the form of long-haired hippies. A lot of them were decent kids caught up in the fashion of the times. Others got mixed-up in drugs and needed help. Still others disappeared altogether, having hitchhiked to that great commune in the sky.

An American Family 1973 – the mirror cracks

They didn’t change suburbia so much as the flaky ideas they brought home with them: open marriage, primal scream therapy and lots of Eastern Mysticism. Until then, suburbia was relatively sedate. Afterward, the Draper household of Mad Men morphed into the Loud family as seen in the 1973 PBS documentary, An American Family. That’s when the tsunami of the 60’s hit suburbia. Like a tsunami, the experience was initially arresting until the wave crashed and then everybody ran for their lives. My family survived these social upheavals mostly intact. But the broken homes and wreckage around us was not a pretty sight. Quite frankly, the nuclear family has never been the same since.

Mad Men is essentially a prologue to these impending furies. It is full of literary conceits about sex and marriage straight out of John Updike. Infidelity, however, is a costly and time-consuming business. One needs an expense account to pay for hotels, booze and silk stockings – never mind catching the 5:48 train back to the wife and kids in Connecticut. No wonder Don Draper looks so haggard. He’s going to collapse from a heart-attack atop one of those buxom beauties if he’s not careful.

There’s also a darkly, cynical edge to Draper which – leaving his hidden past aside – seems forced. “People want to be told what to do so badly,” he says in the new season. “They’ll listen to anything.” While this may be true, I thought the point of advertising was to market pleasure and convenience at an affordable price. The higher the purchasing power of a consumer, the more pleasure and convenience they can afford. Isn’t that how to sell the American Dream? Everything else is just repackaging laundry detergent.

On a personal note, do you remember the iconic 1971 Coke commercial with the hippies on the hillside singing; “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony“? I have never forgotten it even though I was only a child when it first appeared. It occurs to me now that the admen of the 1960’s were trying to paint a better picture of life after the horrors of World War II and deprivations of the Great Depression. In large measure, they succeeded. While their children went on to create the Nike swoosh and Apple logo, nothing quite equals the singular optimism of that Coke commercial. It’s difficult to imagine a guy like Don Draper, with all his neurotic hang-ups, conjuring up an equally hopeful message.

Baby Boomers have always had a hard time reconciling the narrative of their parent’s lives with their own. After decades of writing lurid memoirs about their parent’s shortcomings (see Home Before Dark by Susan Cheever), Boomers are finally waking up to the fact that their parents did the best they could and this makes them uneasy. Maybe they misjudged them. This ambiguity is reflected in Mad Men which neither condemns nor endorses the adults of the 1960’s. Instead, the show settles upon an odd mix of nostalgia and lament. The writers are both repelled and in awe of their parent’s lives, but must they depict every hidden secret as an existential crisis? Lighten up, fellas – your parents had fun, too!

The show is currently meandering through the late-Sixties as social forces align to undermine everything these characters ever knew or thought possible. Part of me wants to warn Don Draper; “You think you’ve got problems now, wait till your daughter gets knocked up by a Hell’s Angel biker and your son announces he’s having a sex change operation! Then you’ll wish for the good old days!” But by then, I suspect Don Draper will be undergoing primal scream therapy and attending AA. Maybe then, Don can work out the demons of his past and start life anew. Somehow I doubt it. But stay tuned anyway. It’s sure to be an interesting, if bumpy ride.

About the Author

- Robert Maley has worked in publishing, banking and – as incongruent as it may seem – the theatrical world. After many years of living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, he now resides in the more pastoral setting of Virginia. A playwright with an MFA from Columbia University, he has had several plays produced off-off-Broadway. Presently, he is a critic of the Cultural Marxism to which he once allied, especially as it pertains to the arts, faith and academia.