I've started following Mad Men on the teevee, and I'm enjoying it a lot more than I thought I would. I must admit that I don't follow the show religiously, but I try to keep up with it. The characters and their stories are fascinating with some great office drama. I can't think of a more compelling character on teevee these days than the brilliant ad man with a mysterious past, Don Draper.
The excruciatingly correct period details for me are a little unnerving. Most of the demographic (to use an advertising term) who watch this show see it as a historical period piece. They were all born at least 10 years after the period (early to mid 1960s) where this drama is set. It is living memory for me, though I was a small child at the time. I grew up in a very different place and a very different class from what's shown on Mad Men. My parents in the early 1960s were struggling young petit bourgeois moving from one small rent house to another, both working to pay expenses, and to create some vague semblance of that "normal" family they saw daily on teevee, and which they believed was expected of them. My father never even visited any of the circles Don Draper moves in. But, I do remember the clothes, the hair, the furniture, and the cars from that time.
One of the things that I've come to appreciate about the show is the very skillful way the writers weave actual history into the narrative. Instead of referencing the huge social transformations of the time, they are woven into the story, sometimes in strikingly intimate and personal fashion. The writers stick to the social ethos of the time. The ad firm is very much all white and male dominated, true to the era. Also true to the era, they are trying to reach only one racial and social demographic, the once vast and dominant white middle class. Also true to the time is the fact that no one on the show questions this order of the world until that order comes into question around them. The show deals with the burning issue of race in the 1960s, not with earnest conversations about race relations around the water cooler, but through one character having an affair with an attractive young black woman. His father beats him violently with a cane after he introduces the girl. I thought that was a great way to show the power of taboo around that subject at the time.
My! how things have changed since I was young. A show like this would have been unthinkable when I was young. Ad guys were the butt of fun at best, and seriously despised as tools and sell-outs at worst. Back in my art school days, contemplating a career in advertising was tantamount to contemplating a career in prostitution. Even folks in design and applied art departments had no desire to go into advertising (including those who wound up in the business).
I've always had a complicated relationship with advertising.
When my students (especially in studio classes) ask me what's the difference between advertising and fine art, I always answer "purpose." All advertising no matter how crude or sophisticated has only one purpose, to sell us something, no matter what it is. Fine art has any number of real and intended purposes.
I almost always use print ads from magazines when I teach basic design studio courses. I'm always amazed at the formal sophistication in those ads, composition, rhythm, color, everything used so incredibly well and effectively. In terms of pure form and technique, the best minds are all in the ad business and not in fine art. Some of the most amazingly brilliant pieces of film making technique are in one minute ad spots on teevee. They create atmosphere, tell a story with pacing, editing, suggestion, evocation, and all in the space of 60 seconds. Eisenstein and Orson Welles would be amazed.
Although I accept advertising as necessary to keep the economy moving (things have to be sold), I've always thought that it had a dark influence on our culture, and a disastrous influence on our politics. So much of selling these days is a kind of subtle coercion, the idea that we must buy something or buy into an idea, or risk losing something, or end up isolated and marginalized. Selling has less and less to do with the merits of what's being sold than the consequences of not buying it. We are not so much buying a product as buying a ticket to the Valhalla of the Elect. The modern cult of the cool plays right into this, and not just with the younger demographic. To be in on the joke is the very definition of cool. No one wants to be the poor sap at the party who just doesn't get it.
Market research is vital to advertising. Producers have to go out there and find their customers. But, it seems to have unwittingly taken over our culture. Focus groups began as a market research technique and have now taken over everything including religion ( I suspect that everyone from the evangelical megachurches to the Roman Catholic Church uses focus groups).
What could be more dehumanizing than to be reduced to a unit among other units in a category? What could be more insulting than to have one's views, opinions, and experiences reduced to indicators of a type? Political parties, corporations, governments, educators, and churches view the world more and more in terms of market research, in terms of ever smaller demographic units until we at last come down to the inconvenient and irrelevant individual.
Advertising has changed a lot in my lifetime. It is now so much more sophisticated than it was when I was young (and it was changing back then). Here is a sample of ads from Don Draper's time. This is what he and his firm would have produced in the mid 1960s.
Here is what I would consider a major landmark in both advertising and in politics from 1968:
And nothing has been the same since.