LAST FRIDAY I RECEIVED GOOD NEWS. Brookstone wants to extend my freelance gig a couple of months until a staff copywriter returns from maternity leave. Almost as gratifying were the phone messages and emails awaiting me at home, from various staffing agencies I’ve contacted in the past. Suddenly they were dying to talk with me about jobs for “a client in Merrimack, NH.” Brookstone, of course. Sorry pal, that opening has been filled by yours truly. Go peddle your third-hand job postings elsewhere.
That news aside, let’s talk “Mad Men” — the TV show whose popularity confounds me.
I bring this up after recently googling Tom Groves, once a colleague at Anderson & Lembke. Tom is one of several larger-than-life personalities I like to keep tabs on, a trained archeologist who now digs up consumer foibles as an advertising researcher. (He left us for Lipton Tea, IIRC, which had to be better than querying plastics buyers for Dow Chemical.) Anyway, Tom is now a VP at GSW Worldwide, and by the rawest coincidence I learned that he had just given a speech at Roanoke College. Subject: “Mad Men? The Liberal Arts on Madison Avenue.”
As it happens, I left A&L when my wife got a job at Roanoke College. We lived there a year while I wandered the vacant streets of Salem, Virginia and occasionally wrote freelance from our attic. So this somewhat striking coincidence got me thinking about “Mad Men,” which I’ve seen only a couple of times. Verdict: Awful. The popular perception of advertising life is often absurd, but what is the attraction of this dreck?
PLAYING DRESS-UP WITH MOMMY’S SHOES
AND DADDY’S CIGARETTES
“Mad Men” essentially adds motion to a series of product photos from the 1959 Sears Catalog — if that catalog had been written by Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann. It’s sort of like an ad agency staffed by mannequins, only with genitalia.
To recap: Brylcreemed men in shiny, narrow-lapel suits blow weary gusts from their Marlboros as they fondle cut-glass tumblers of tinkling scotch. Beehived women envy the tumblers and suck themselves pop-eyed on Chesterfields, while jutting pert hips against the tweedy armor of their Pat Nixon skirts. Toasts are drunk every couple of minutes for no apparent reason. Bidness is done at cocktail bars, with gimlet-eyed white guys peering through a nicotine fog that would shame Jupiter on its cloudiest day. Meanwhile the show’s art director takes great pains to show you the authentic 1961 swizzle sticks, which got him his Emmy.
Why go on? Either you watch it and know, or avoid it and don’t care. But seeing the Hollywood conception of life on Madison Avenue always gives me such an acute pain in the butt. Doesn’t matter if it is “Mad Men” now, or “Mad Avenue” in the 1980s, or older movie treatments like “The Hucksters” or “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.” Heck, I can’t even stand the amateur ad critic stuff that now threatens to overshadow the football aspects of the Super Bowl. Everyone always glamorizes the superficiality, egos and pathetic insecurities that let nerds behave like rock stars because they can write a 60-second TV spot.
Now, in real life, a lot of absurd stuff does happen. I never made it in big-deal advertising, but my first cubicle in New York was directly opposite Jay Chiat’s luxury bunker, the chrome-and-glass womb where VIPs sank deep into modernist leather armchairs while fondling cut-glass tumblers and talking bidness. And there were smart, pretty dragon ladies striding about imperiously, not to mention lots of knowing talk concerning jerk creative directors who came slouching in at 10 am and immediately began self-medicating with daiquiris from the kitchen blender. We even had some of those dramatic, all-hands-on-deck account pitches, working in pressure-cooker conditions to impress prospective clients and outdo rival agencies. (Pitches often generate feelings far more enduring than the agencies that participate in them: wistful regret about ideas not chosen, fierce enmity toward rivals who won out because of skullduggery or client idiocy. I bet my old A&L boss John Athorn is still enraged about losing that ESPN pitch twenty years ago to George Lois and his “Pig Out!” campaign. How about it, John? Still do that George Lois imitation, mocking his growling invite to go someplace and get shitfaced on rob roys? Yeah, I thought so.)
Back to “Mad Men,” the glamour attached to wheeler-dealer ad guys is only part of the attraction. Even the clothes and styles are an incomplete explanation, because lawyer shows have all that stuff. No, what people really like about “Mad Men” is that the characters revel in forbidden stuff we’re no longer allowed to flaunt.
Smoking? Can’t do it indoors, can’t even do it in some public parks.
Workplace drinking? HR and Legal would die from the liability exposure.
Promiscuity? Harassment suits and lethal STDs.
People still do all these things, but the charm has been leeched from them. They are done furtively now, even shamefully. That’s why many people enjoy taking a trip down “Mad Men’s” bottle-strewn Memory Lane. It was the era AND industry that made all this stuff cool in the first place. These were the enablers. So we enjoy a concentrated dose of deliciously unrepentant misbehavior, safely fenced off from our own era with its legislated habits.
Plus it probably helps that the target audience, the show’s dominant demographic, is too young to remember nicotine-stained curtains and cigarette burns and Harley Earl’s obsolescent automobiles and the tawdry sameness of all those dirty cocktail napkins. So the audience is free to play mental dress-up with the crazy clothes, made even cooler by the fact that most of us come to work now looking like unregimented slobs.
But I? I am a cranky old boomer. I remember the era well enough to believe it was no better than now … and I know the ad industry well enough to believe it is better than portrayed.