November 11, 2009

Can I milk another column out of Mad Men?

Why not?

Matthew Weiner’s show about Madison Avenue in the early 1960s is so meticulously detailed that it’s worth using it as a spur to consider what has and hasn”€™t changed in the Zeitgeist over the last half century.

“€¢ The overall impression Mad Men gives of 1960 is that of a less crowded, less expensive world before we swarming hordes of Baby Boomers escaped our playpens and ruined everything.

“€¢ In a fecund era, when most families had heirs and spares to spare (the Total Fertility Rate peaked in 1957 at 3.77 children per woman per lifetime), kids could have more fun and parents weren”€™t as obsessive about safety. Thus, they didn”€™t bother to lock their kids down into car seats.

Don Draper’s small daughter happily plays astronaut by wearing a transparent dry-cleaning bag over her head, and her mother merely admonishes her for knocking her garments on the floor. (The dry-cleaning bag joke, however, is a slight anachronism: In the late 1950s the plastics industry has already started its public service campaign to terrify kids about the plastic bag peril, a fear that forms one of my wife’s most vivid memories of her childhood.)

“€¢ Don Draper, we learn, is 36-years-old. The male protagonists of movies and TV shows are usually described as being about 35. Indeed, 36 is more common than 34, which audiences evidently find rather callow for a leading man.

“€¢ In 1960, however, there weren”€™t actually a lot of 20something babes throwing themselves at guys born in the 1920s, even ones as handsome as Don Draper, because there just weren”€™t that many babies born in the 1930s. There were 2.95 million live births in America in 1925, but only 2.38 million in 1935. Because supply and demand favored younger women, they were picky.

The real sex mismatch happened with the sexual revolution in the later 1960s, when a flood of Baby Boom babes born from 1946 onward came on the mating market and immediately set about stealing prosperous husbands away from their wives.

“€¢ People had deeper voices in 1960 from smoking so much. And not just the men. In a mid-1960s article, Tom Wolfe describes the voices of The Ladies Who Lunch as:

the dah-ling voice, a languid weak baritone, not a man’s voice, you understand, but a woman’s, The New York Social Baritone, like that of a forty-eight-year-old male dwarf who just woke up after smoking three packs of Camels the day before…

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“€¢ Another theme of the show is the luxury”€”the privacy, the irresponsibility”€”of not being expected to carry a cell phone everywhere. In one episode, Don Draper sneaks out to a foreign movie during business hours (hey, his job as Creative Director requires him to stay hep). When he gets in trouble for missing a meeting, he dismisses his new secretary back to the switchboard for failing to artfully cover for him while he was at the art film.

“€¢ Something that Mad Men misses is that in the mid-20th Century the consensus of the most artistic and insightful souls was that American life was plagued by gender oppression. Men, in the view of social commentators such as James Thurber, Robert Benchley, Groucho Marx, and W.C. Fields, were relentlessly oppressed by women, who refused to sleep with them without a legally binding promise of lifetime support and fidelity.

The contemporary notion that women rose up as one to wrest from men the privilege of bringing home the bacon is one of the more curious myths in folklore.

“€¢ Transportation hasn”€™t sped up at all. The cruising speed of today’s Boeing 777 is no faster than that of the 707 that entered domestic service in 1959, and it probably took Dan Draper less time to get to La Guardia Airport from his home in Westchester Co. than it would take his son driving from the same house today.

“€¢ People dressed more formally then. The popularity of the expensive clothes on Mad Men reminds me that, like a lot of viewers, I unthinkingly approve of people in the past spending a lot of money on how they dressed, while I”€™m generally annoyed by people in the present who do the same. Logically, it would make more sense to resent our ancestors wasting so much money on clothes, wealth that they could have left to, say, us. But that’s not how we feel. We don”€™t feel competitive with the dead, but we do with the living.

For example, my wife enjoys historical novels about the Tudor era, in which Queen Elizabeth I’s elaborate attire is elaborately described. Yet, when, at a weekend conference in the 1990s, my wife met one of Elizabeth I’s two closest living equivalents, Margaret Thatcher, she was pleased that the Right Honorable Baroness wore the same discreetly patched dress two days in a row. The other ladies at the symposium appreciated that this world-historical figure didn”€™t feel it necessary to compete with them over couture.

Of course, the decline of formal clothing has not reduced competition within each sex, just refocused it upon the underlying body. Sure, Don Draper looks great in a suit, but, then, most guys look better in business attire than in whatever they choose for themselves nowadays.

“€¢ The depiction of advertising in Mad Men is underdeveloped. One reason is that Baby Boomers can”€™t remember it accurately. Sure, the television commercials that ran on Gilligan’s Island were lame, but that’s because A) nobody knew much about how to make TV spots then, and B) they were aimed at Gilligan’s Island fans.

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In contrast, the magazine advertising of 1960 was a mature art form, probably more readable and certainly more legible than today’s overly art-directed print ads. It doesn”€™t make for exciting television, however. Thus, the competition between the reigning style of detailed text perfected by the most celebrated Madison Avenue guru of that era, the Brit David Ogilvy, and the soon to be dominant high-concept imagery exemplified by the Marlboro Man icon dreamed up by Chicago’s Leo Burnett and his creative director Draper Daniels, is only vaguely delineated in Mad Men, which emphasizes adultery over advertising.

Weiner likes to depict 1960 WASP advertising men as indolent but decorative as they elegantly lounge about in their offices, cigarette in one hand, whiskey glass in the other, waiting patiently for an idea to finally pop into their well-shaped but largely empty goyishe kopfs.

In reality, advertising was created then, as now, through hard work. Ogilvy advised aspiring account executives,

Set yourself to becoming the best-informed person in the agency on the account to which you are assigned. If, for example, it is a gasoline account, read books on oil geology and the production of petroleum products.

The magazine advertising of the day exuded intense study of the product. Ogilvy defined advertising as “€œsalesmanship in print,”€ and magazine ads of the day were stuffed with laboriously researched reasons for buying the gizmo.

In that pre-ironic age, when ads featured headlines such as “€œThe amazing story of a Zippo that worked after being taken from the belly of a fish,”€ ad men felt comfortable making long, fact-filled pitches. For example, Ogilvy’s renowned headline for his Rolls-Royce ad, “€œAt 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock,”€ is only one of 13 sales pitches in the 607 words of copy. Ogilvy found his famous factoid while doing three weeks of reading about the car.

Similarly, Bill Bernbach’s “€œLemon”€ ad for Volkswagen (which the Sterling Cooper boys debate for 15 minutes in one early episode) includes lines like, “€œThere are 3,389 men at our Wolfsburg factory with only one job: to inspect Volkswagens at each stage of production.”€

Sadly, nobody has yet figured out how to do on the Web what the Ogilvys and Bernbachs were doing in the pages of Life fifty years ago: making advertising noticeable, interesting, and persuasive without being irritating.


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