August 17, 2009

Beyond Christina Hendricks

Perhaps my in-progress dissertation on the history of advertising makes me a little biased, but shouldn?t a review of a television drama about advertising discuss… advertising? Somewhere in Scott Locklin?s ambitious cultural analysis of Mad Men, the show?s core got completely lost. Mad Men is a unique popular look at the development of mass culture within the greater context of capitalism. The history of the ad business happens to be one of the best aspects of this series (second only to the aptly noted curvy ladies and slick-dressed gentlemen!). Of course, Locklin?s entire sweeping critique is also underpinned by the curious assumption that characters and fans alike are engaged in ?vapid ?creative? endeavours? (sic)).

The series? creators resemble the fictional Madison Avenue ad men: they realize that advertising is not art, but rather—the art of selling. And so, the plot necessarily balances history with various modernized clich?s for viewers? sake. Rebellious WASP character A dates a black woman and attends Civil Rights demonstrations. Closeted gay character B attempts to express his interest in a male colleague. Female character C?s divorce is the subject of vicious neighborhood gossip. Unmarried female character D moves up within the firm from a lowly typist to a skilled copywriter despite the odds, gets pregnant, gives up the baby for adoption, and questions Catholic faith. (Busy girl!)

Nina: (With thick Russian accent*) Mr. Draper, I am not spy from Great Patriotic Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but I understand that you must still examine me. I insist. Very much.

*Note: accent is, regrettably, not a part of the actual show.

The series’ audience-conscious sub-storylines are admittedly politically correct, but that doesn?t mean that those things didn?t actually happen. More important, these scenarios do not discredit the central subject matter, which, contrary to Locklin?s assertion, actually is historic.

Mad Men examines persistent themes, such as the fact that advertising is a ?sensitive barometer? of transformation within a broad social context, according to historian Stephen Fox. And, this business changes more rapidly than other institutions in order to address the market and the consumer.  For example, the series includes the rebranding of a tobacco company, after the rise of publicity about the dangers of smoking.

There are signs of the so-called Cultural Revolution. In advertising, this 1960s phenomenon often translated into the influx of young, fresh-thinking talent ?off the street,” like the character of Kurt (Edin Gali).

The brand new marriage of advertising and politics also makes an appearance. Recall how a mere half a century ago Ike was rather displeased about being compared to soap, figuratively speaking. Viewers may draw their own conclusions about presidential celebrification in modern-day U.S.
In politics and beyond, Mad Men looks at how agencies adapted new technology (beyond the photocopier incident!). TV production originated in the early 1940s. However, it was not until the late 1950s that advertisers realized that television was a natural medium for dividing the mass market into distinct, manageable segments. In the series, office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) briefly reads soap opera scripts to determine ad placement for various female products.

Target categories themselves evolved. For example, the Self-Sacrificing Housewife got replaced by the Discerning Mrs. Consumer during the early Cold War period, writes historian Victoria de Grazia. The latter reigned in suburban shopping malls, which became prominent after WWII. In one episode, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) embarrasses his wife Betty (January Jones) at a dinner party when he uses her as a case study-of-one and accurately predicts her shopping patterns.

Furthermore, Mad Men emphasizes advertisers? contradictory social status: despite financial reward, agency men were still quite wary of attacks on the legitimacy of their profession even in the 1950s. In one episode, account exec Pete Campbell?s (Vincent Kartheiser) old-school father-in-law questions him about what-it-is-he-does-exactly-and-why-can?t-he-do-something-more-reputable.
The show even references specific historic detail. The lead character, Don Draper, is the series? homage to a legendary ad man, Draper Daniels. Also, hypothetical marketing campaigns occasionally target real companies like Bethlehem Steel.

Mad Men?s inconsistencies are forgivable. Editorial decisions, whether mainstream or underground, are beyond the scope of this blog. It suffices to note that I don?t recall encountering a reputable war film with the full sensory glory of rotten teeth, lice, and dysentery. And, frankly, I wouldn?t want to see the original Alexander Nevsky in Old Slavonic either.

?Vapid ?creative?? (sic) types like me may occasionally surprise with the sense of practicality. So, when we want to see something more historically accurate, we seek out documentaries (!). In fact, one film was the direct result of Mad Men?s popularity. David Ogilvy: Original Mad Man (2008), an up-by-the-bootstraps story of another legendary advertiser, was fascinating enough to watch in parts on two different flights this year! 

In today?s mass cultural landscape dominated by trashy reality television, Mad Men is actually looking as good as the curves of Joan Holloway!

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