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Madvertising

AMC’s period drama Mad Men portrays the 1960 glory days when dapper advertising executives wore crisp suits. They were sexist. They called themselves geniuses. They looked like GQ models. They used phrases such as, “You look like a hundred dollars” (instead of a million dollars) to put somebody down. Some would call those the glory days. Audiences will have to decide if the show is a nod to the Madison Avenue offices of old, or a comment on the ad executive’s insane behavior.

Mad Men’s creator Matthew Weiner wrote and executive produced The Sopranos before getting Mad Men picked up by AMC. And if you want more backstory, Mad Men’s sensual camera work and lighting is the result of another Sopranos veteran, Alan Taylor, who directs the show with panache. With two veterans from The Sopranos helming the reigns, Mad Men’s Madison Avenue executives may strike you as more gangster than creative. But are the two mutually exclusive? I can’t wait to find out.

In 1960, the U.S. had not yet entered Vietnam and Americans entertained themselves watching Psycho at the theater. They read Henry Wolf’s Bazaar. The Beatniks populated cafes. Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson’s Modernist Seagram building had been completed. It was acceptable to call customers morons. Smoking was safe, and women were on “the pill.” Women who had a nine to five desk job used high technology like a rotary phone and IBM typewriter. Not only would these ladies be introduced to carpal tunnel syndrome from so much typing, but they would also have to cope with their male colleagues flailing their tongues about with perverse come-ons such as, “it wouldn’t be a sin to see your legs” if she didn’t hem her skirt high enough. Watching the men joust over women is good for ratings, but seeing them climb the corporate tower of power—or what they perceive as power—really showcases the menacing competition that agencies are about, whether that’s winning a big account like Lucky Strike or pulling rank over an underling. Such hierarchical battles seem akin to Tony Soprano maintaining Machiavellian order over his troops and goods. Mad Men and The Sopranos share creative insight, and both shows depict powerful men, who spend so much time under pressure and recovering from failure that they appear more human than godly.


All Images © 2007 AMC

I’ve seen previews of episode one—“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”—which amounts to romance, sexual harassment, male-to-male ego challenges, and lots and lots of bragging among Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper execs. Whew, all of that so-called hard work at the office means these geniuses will need to take many breaks, only you won’t see them make trips to the water cooler. It’s more like downing cocktails and inhaling cigarettes to help stir a healthy appetite for lunch—or maybe an appetite for hoochie coochie with the administrative assistant.

Taken as a whole, Weiner and his production team capture the 1960s well, teaching you how to harass your female office staff and choose the right tie for a gray suit. It’s too early to tell, but I suspect the real pleasure will come from watching the ad-men fail, and fail badly. Despite the office soap operas that Mad Men will deliver, and the perfectly crafted hair, you won’t want to miss a classic boardroom flop when the agency fails to address the negative buzz about smoking. You will love to hate them—just like Tom Cruise.

Still, how much history will Weiner inject about the craft, pitch, and creative? Will we get background on the agencies of the day? Perhaps a George Lois likeness will make an appearance. Will we get to see the Guggenheim Museum opening? Will Sterling Cooper be on the cover of Communication Art’s first issue? And what is a good typeface for cigarette packaging? What about the advent of Letraset dry transfer lettering? Perhaps they’ll at least help clients with the four Ps: product characteristics, price structure, placement strategy, and promotional strategy. Please give us some heated creative direction or bickering by the copywriter. We need more than quips like “advertising is based on one thing, happiness.” Sure, it may be true, but it’s too simplified.

Weiner did a wonderful job on The Sopranos, and I expect good things to come from Mad Men—or at least good reviews from those passionate for Sopranos-like tension and character development. I’ve heard rumors about ad execs getting death threats, and this show would be the perfect place to dramatize it given the material Weiner has worked with in the past. But when it comes to story telling, Martin Scorsese always delivers the technical side of things; audiences learn about the best way to dig a hole for a corpse, surprise an enemy, eat apple pie, or cook a meal when in prison. He shows the human side while informing us about the subculture and how work gets done. I would be surprised if Mad Men offers any of my aforementioned 1960s issues and influences. (But they must get Doyle Dane Bernbach or George Lois in there somehow.) Scorsese is one thing. Weiner is another. Design is one thing. Ratings are another. AMC will not win the ratings war with design history, and best as I can tell, this has nothing to do with Swiss Modernism—although it’s concurrent with the show’s time period.

Despite my skepticism, Weiner uses the cultural norms of the 1960s to paint a realistic picture, and when combined with the luscious cinematography and tailored suits, it’s enough to make any man question when khakis became acceptable at the office. And don’t get me started on casual Fridays, which the Mad Men and their bourboned swagger would—dare I say—probably use for casual sex with the administrative assistants (or clerk, even secretary, as it used to be called). Pessimists will write off Mad Men and its fast-talking, swindling execs “working” at the office as nothing more than a mash-up of The Godfather (fraternal mob men, who dress well, and always manage to stand in good lighting) and Roger Dodger (an advertising executive’s motor-mouth methods for picking up women, and treating them like sex toys) with a little Sopranos thrown in for good measure (yes, we’re powerful, but we’re human, we cry and see therapists). Let’s see how the show develops over time. People wrote off The Sopranos when it first hit HBO. Women supposedly adored Tony Soprano’s bullish good looks and take-charge attitude by the time the show reached the masses. Maybe Mad Men will make advertising executives appear just as adorable. Or just as bullish.

The Sterling Cooper executives occupy a time and culture that seems eerily corrupt compared to our current standards, unless you know advertising. I draw comparisons between Mad Men and my own agency experience: we smoked a lot, charged exorbitant fees, left by five or earlier every day to go drink, got a lot of free things, had expense accounts, had Hollywood dreams, looked excellent in no matter what we wore, and flirted with each other (men hitting on women, women hitting on men, and men hitting on men—in some cases). It’s a cliché, and not much has changed since 1960—except those exorbitant fees. They’re here to stay, and cigarette companies are still an agency’s cash cow, even though we’ve cut back on the smoking.

Tune into Speak Up after the show’s July 19th premier to read the full review that follows this preview.

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ENTRY DETAILS
ARCHIVE ID 3629 FILED UNDER Review
PUBLISHED ON Jul.12.2007 BY Jason A. Tselentis
WITH 20 COMMENTS
Comments
Doug B’s comment is:

I’ve seen previews of episode one

Did you write a 1200-word review of a new TV series base solely on seeing the previews of episode 1?

Just askin'

On Jul.12.2007 at 05:19 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

It's more of a preview. The full-fledged review will come next week, after I've seen it all.

On Jul.12.2007 at 05:21 PM
Doug B’s comment is:

impressive!

I need to get cable.

On Jul.12.2007 at 05:23 PM
felix’s comment is:

nice ad, Arm... but we went over to Unbeige a few days ago to glimpse the same preview you did (though, at least you bothered to elaborate/ hypothesize).

I can't tell what it'll spin into. Looks sexy, obviously. But thats not how mad advertising looks these days. At Ogilvy in 1998 I did meet and work on Jaguar with an older guy who told everyone to piss off he was smoking in his office.. thinking back, it was hilarious.

I could go into that great drama about how I was having sex with the Alison, the creative manager... but... too predictable. At a fancy dinner outside her upper east apt, I told her I had no ambitions, she took the bait and dumped me. Oh, I was good.

Advertising never was.

On Jul.12.2007 at 06:27 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> nice ad, Arm...

Felix, you are so on to us!

On Jul.12.2007 at 09:38 PM
felix’s comment is:

Heh heh.

Don't you know it!

On Jul.13.2007 at 08:58 AM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Ha. Trust me when I say that this is not an ad. But, I do encourage people to watch the show, and keep an eye on Speak Up after its premier. Opinions will fly.

On Jul.13.2007 at 09:36 AM
Sean Flanagan’s comment is:

Doug,

With apologies to Mark Twain, Jason didn't have time to write a short preview, so he wrote a long one. :-D

I, for one, didn't even know about this show until seeing this preview. It seems quite interesting. I never watch AMC, but this might give me reason to. Can't wait to see your review, Jason.

On Jul.13.2007 at 10:54 AM
Tselentis’s comment is:

I've been scouting this show since reading about its development in Variety months ago. It seems like a gray-suits and martinis kind of thing, but we'll see what it's really about when it premiers.

On Jul.13.2007 at 01:30 PM
Brad Gutting’s comment is:

To paraphrase Andy Warhol: why do people think ad people are special? It's just another job.

The worst people in the business to deal with are the folks who actually buy into the mythology that never remote existed and then try to reclaim it.

Still and all, I'm looking forward to this.

On Jul.15.2007 at 07:59 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Odd to read that Warhol said that. He started off in advertising, and then became a pop artist, merging advertising strategy and operations with popular and experimental imagery to gain fame and fortune.

On Jul.16.2007 at 11:33 AM
Mr. McGinnis’s comment is:

This show looks like it might be good... however its already a bit offensive in that the only gay character is in the art department. Yesterday, just like today, there are a LOT of gay people in advertising. A LOT, not one per office. It is a mythology alright. I'm over the kind of masculine mythology that acts like there are barely any gay men in the world, especially in an industry where gay men have always flourished. Whatever, we'll see.

On Jul.16.2007 at 12:48 PM
Brad Gutting’s comment is:

I believe Warhol's original quotation was about why do people think that artists are special...I just rearranged it. What he's getting at--and I agree with the argument--is that there's a tendency to look at just about any job and assume that its somehow more glamorous than whatever you do.

On Jul.16.2007 at 06:02 PM
adam’s comment is:

well, in that case, lets just make a bunch of the guys in the show gay for no reason other than so some people dont get offended.

maybe there are more gay guys in the show, but they just dont make it a big deal? not every gay person wears a name tag that says "lookit me im gay!"

but maybe we should all wear tshirts that state whether we are gay or straight.

i dont see what it matters if someone is gay or not.

On Jul.16.2007 at 07:12 PM
Mr. McGinnis’s comment is:

You miss the point entirely - which is that gay people exist, live and walk around and are a part of the story of life. So yeah - they should be gay for "no reason." Gay people don't just pop into existence for thematic purpose to illustrate a point for heterosexual onlookers–they just are.

In any event–there are particularly a lot of gay people in advertising and marketing. There are a lot of gay people in all the arts, so yeah, it's lame if someone makes a movie or TV show and acts like we don't exist. Like in Fame, which had ONE gay (and pathetic) character at a high school of art! Absurd!

On Jul.17.2007 at 12:32 AM
Mitchell’s comment is:

Art is great. The people who create great art have great talents but that doesn't always mean that they themselves are great people. I believe the show will be a fun look into not just advertising but what life was like in 1960. People boozed during lunch on the regulars? Sounds like a lot of fun to me.

On Jul.18.2007 at 07:08 PM
Campion’s comment is:

Boy I really wanted to like this. DVR'd it and watched it last night. Man, was I let down. It's a really cardboard character, cliched script that wants so hard to GIVE US A MESSAGE. It becomes sophmoric and pedantic almost thru out. It spews factoids in a way better reserved to dinner conversation than interesting dramatic dialog. And it shoots itself in the foot for style. See Good Night and Good Luck for better film making and dialog. See Thank You for Smoking for crisper drama. I hope it gets better. I'll give it three chances, but if it stays on the preachy course, it will have been a missed opportunity.

On Jul.20.2007 at 02:04 PM
tom wynkoop’s comment is:

I HAVE NEVER BEEN THIS ANXIOUS TO SEE A NEW SHOW
THANKS TO A GREAT AND UNRELENTING PROMO BARRAGE.
I SAW THE SHOW. this is a great premise, with good actors and story line. This is a show about a charismatic arena that unfortunatley lacks in charisma.
Starting with fact that there was not a shred of
desparation coming from anyone, especially Draper, the guy who's job hangs in the balance right at the beginning.There could have been more exposition as to set up the fact that he was under great pressure to nail the Lucky Strike account. how? Something other than some thin dialog to another exec about how rough the biz is.
He could be "hurling" in the executive wash room, ANYTHING to SHOW YOU his career might be swirling the toilet. And then when he saves the day and gets the account It's like "so what"?
The problem is the script is missing scenes that
would set up the punch needed to make you say "wow".Frankly I thought he would steel the waiter's comment when he told Draper. "I love to smoke".I was not paying that much attention to the furnishings at the agency.The icon pieces from that period would be from names like Herman
Miller, Charles Eames, Heywood Wakefield,Russell
Wright.etc. The production lacks texture. I think this material would show well in the hands of someone like Anthony Yerkovich, Michael Mann or perhaps Barry Levinson. To understand this .
you have to sit down and watch an episode of CRIME STORY if only to get a real taste of the period. I'd like to see more cars.A grittier shooting and directing style. You can only get so far on the A.M.drinking and smoking in the elevator. Mid story, a meeting takes place where Draper has words with a potential client. A female owner of a large department store. Draper becomes insulted and walks out on the meeting. OK, a rash move from a man on the edge. Later we cut to a scene of two people seated at a table having a drink. It's Draper and the woman. No set- up or even an entrance where we can follow him in to find her waiting.Like a "point of view' where he walks the room and walks up on her sitting there. I guess i'm nit picking here, but i did like the ending.
Except. If you didn't suspect he was going home to his wife and kids when he was on the train, you KNEW it when you saw the Pontiac take off from the station. I would have liked a surprise here by
perhaps following his boss out the door at closing time, and then through some veiled shots insinuate that the boss was going home to the wife only to see Draper's head poke into frame. How about it?
There is so much potential with this show. I want to be a fan, and to tell you the truth it's different enough and I will keep watching and hopefully eat my words.

On Jul.20.2007 at 07:56 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

I have too much to say, and am reserving my comments until I watch the second and third episodes. Thus far, the show feels like a mash-up of stories from various designers and advertisers. I'm surprised by the initial buzz this show created, but after watching episode 1, all I can say is that I fell asleep. Yes, I actually fell asleep. Still, I hope to catch a rerun of episode 1, follow up with 2 and 3, and then offer a review after getting more of the show into me.

On Jul.25.2007 at 01:15 PM
dan mecchi’s comment is:

So, I was watching Mad Men on AMC this weekend. Nice enough show. GREAT production design. They do this neat, 'tivo-proof" type of commercial billboard before most commercials. For example, they have a branded Mad Men billboard w/ a bit like, "The music in the 'Epiphany' commercial for Heineken is 'Tempted' by Squeeze" or "The therapist in the GEICO caveman therapy spot is Talia Shire." In each case, they immediately go into the commercial. Very interesting. And I bite.

Originally, I paused because I think that maybe the show is coming back -- a la traditional billboard/bumper. Now I am conditioned to stop, because I am getting some value in exchange -- I get ad history/trivia, facts, music/artists in spots, etc... All good. I watch more, stay through commercial breaks, AND I have a high recall of the ads.

Now I'm interested. Give me more. Give me something I would love... The music in the GEICO Airport spot? Got it. Now, tell me an inside joke. Seriously, keep me hooked w/ some irony. Cut to a quote...Steven Wright. I'm in. "I saw a subliminal advertising executive, but only for a second." We're tipped off: subliminal is bolded red. Now, I am ready. I lean forward. Readying the pause button.Then it happens. A DirecTV spot w/ the Manning family. But wait, there was a slight hic-cup. What was it? Rewind. They buried a 1 second frame of another commercial. Pay dirt. I have a new favorite SVP of On-Air Strategy.

I am nothing if not a student of commercial break structure, clock and media management. Needless to say, I tend to watch TV and get a greater, more active enjoyment out of it when my wife falls asleep or is out. She doesn't have much interest in this hobby. Fortunately, we're both passionate philatelists. I digress.

It could have been a glitch. Often when commercial breaks switch from local avails to national to house time or MSO time, there is a hiccup. But I am a conspiracy theorist. A conspiracy theorist and philatelist. And some one who uses his video camera to tape TV -- If you want, I have a video and screen grabs of the break and of the ghost ad... I doubt you'll enjoy it as much as I did. But there it is. If I could, I would post them. If you don't care, fake it. Perhaps we can talk about stamps sometime...

Curiously yours,

- DM

On Aug.16.2007 at 04:26 PM