Mad Men world makes the '60s feel new
Hit show takes us to unfamiliar territory in the heart of the ad game
Jul 23 2010
By Geoff Pevere
Of all the reasons one might offer for the epidemically gripping
nature of AMC's Mad Men, which begins its feverishly anticipated
fourth season Sunday night, the best and simplest might be this: the
more time you spend with its characters all of whom orbit, like
blinking Sputniks, around the Manhattan advertising industry of the
early 1960s the less you know.
Take Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the show's nominal leading man, driving
dramatic concern, beleaguered moral conscience and rogue B-52 sexual
threat. Although smoulderingly charismatic and fortified by a
teasingly doled-out back story concerning his impoverished childhood,
shattering combat experiences, assumed identity and pathological
inability to reveal any more of himself than a situation demands,
Draper, a brilliant ad man, remains a shimmering cipher.
If anything, his past confirms only that he's capable of anything, a
tightrope walker inching the wobbly line between supreme control and
animal impulse. And therefore the program's desert-silo atomic secret.
There's power there. The question is, how much? And how will it be unleashed?
This climate of sustained, mathematically calibrated uncertainty not
only makes for compelling television and Mad Men, if nothing else,
is one captivating TV show it also taps something that runs through
the program like a energy-generating undercurrent. By making its
early '60s ad man hero (and his world) so vividly yet humanly
unaccountable, Mad Men is up to something remarkable. It's making the
1960s feel new again.
Remember that when Bob Dylan first sang about a-changin' times, he
did not know what they were a-changin' into. And it is this sense of
suspended hindsight, of lives being lived in the intimacy of present
moment, that Mad Men nails.
Making this most prepackaged of decades unfold is no mean feat and it
is unsurprising that it has riveted, among a few million others, the
attention of American political historian Rick Perlstein.
Perlstein's two celebrated epic volumes tracking the rise of
conservatism in his country Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and
Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a
President and the Fracturing of America converge with Mad Men. They
see the decade freshly and without prior judgment, bringing it alive
in startlingly fresh forms.
For Perlstein, the most conspicuous omission in popular thinking
about the '60s is the rise of the right. As he writes in Before the
Storm, "America would remember the sixties as a decade of the left.
It must be remembered instead as a decade when the polarization began."
The surge of conservatism, as embodied by the candidacy of hardliner
Barry Goldwater in 1964, is every bit as rooted in the period as was
the emergence of the countercultural left. The decade split the
country along lines so divisive that it made Richard Nixon's return
from political limbo possible, the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan
understandable and the neoconservative-driven administration of
George W. Bush inevitable. For Perlstein, too many histories of the
era have only told half the story. Unfortunately, it's not the half
that fully accounts for the present.
"I think a lot of this is generational," says Perlstein, who is at
work on a history of the 1970s called The Invisible Bridge, from his
home in Chicago.
"I was born in 1969 and I had an editor once who observed that people
are often most fascinated with the period right before they were
born, that kind of formed their parents' identities," he said. "I
have parents who were married on August 2, 1964, the day of the first
Gulf of Tonkin attack. My dad was a single man in Washington in 1963,
a navy bureaucrat when the Kennedy assassination happened. And a big
part of kind of my own existential quest is to figure out who these
people are to figure out who I am myself."
Like Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, who was born in 1965 and whose
experience of the decade would therefore be primarily second-hand,
Perlstein belongs to the generations considering '60s from an
Other recent works in a similar light include the Coen Brothers' A
Serious Man, which revisits the classic issue of suburban conformity
as a Jewish male mid-life crack-up; Sam Mendes's adaptation of
Richard Yates's 1960 novel Revolutionary Road (which renders the
book's harrowing study of marital implosion as a 21st-century Who's
Afraid of Virginia Woolf); and Tom Ford's film of Christopher
Isherwood's A Single Man, first published in 1964, which views the
period through the guarded, poignantly repressed horn rims of a
grieving gay man.
In each case, the story is viewed through a contemporary social prism
middle-class Jewish identity, feminism, gay consciousness that
permits a fresh perspective on lives lived before such clarity even existed.
To appreciate what's a-changed here, consider the way in which the
1960s experience has tended to transmitted through Boomer-generated
media. For the most part, the decade has been seen as a struggle
between virtuous, if naïve, youth culture in collision with the
intolerant, and inarguably oppressive, values of the parent generation.
In protesting Vietnam, practising free love, trancing to psychedelic
rock, crying over the Kennedys and marching shoulder to shoulder with
every group blacks, feminists, antiwar demonstrators, gays a
generation looks back through the lens of vindication.
It is this perspective that defines nearly half of the movies of
Oliver Stone (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors), any
movie or documentary concerning The Beatles, anything bearing the
Rolling Stone imprimatur and any mainstream media event marking yet
another boomer-era milestone: the Beatles' first U.S. Tour, the
Kennedy assassination, Woodstock, rock star-death anniversaries, the
debut of Star Trek.
For a historian such as Perlstein, these are the kind of myths that
cling to a generation that was galvanized during a period. The
boomers don't just want to understand their past, they want to make a
story out of it, one with dramatic shape and coherence. That process
is selective, and it inevitably undergoes re-examination as new
generations look back.
Asked what he considers to be the most predominant and persistent
myths clinging to the 1960s, Perlstein responds: "I think one of the
most persistent and misleading myths was that most of the violence in
the '60s came from the left. Not so. It was actually pretty evenly
divided between the left-wing extremists and right-wing extremists.
Also, the idea that it was fun, that it was enjoyable. I think, for
most people, the period was actually quite traumatic. And the fact
that America has never really sort of reckoned quite honestly with
that trauma is a lot of what the current backlash is about."
As the very idea of who speaks for the past is handed or just falls
from one generation to another, both the voice and the story
change. The result is a story that isn't tied to, as Perlstein calls
them, "veterans of a certain part of the '60s. People who had been in
the left and counterculture, baby boomers, who had told the story
from engagement to disillusionment. That was kind of the big sweep of
But for Perlstein, a young liberal confronted by the ubiquity of the
hard right during the 1990s, it was obviously only part of the story.
"I was fascinated with where these conservatives had come from in the
middle of the '90s when I was watching the rise of Newt Gingrich," he
recalls. "And the idea that there are million of Americans who live
alongside me, so to speak, who see the world completely differently
than I do as a liberal, was fascinating."
Perlstein suspected there was another tale out there, one that, for
whatever reasons, had not been fully written.
"It was obvious to me as a person in my 20s in the 1980s," he says,
"as I was coming into adulthood, that the dominant political story of
the '60s was the rise of the right. Generationally, right when I was
kind of looking to tell a big story, that was the big story that was
out there to be told."
As Weiner most likely would, Perlstein strenuously resists the idea
that his pursuit of the "big story" of the '60s was motivated by a
generational agenda. In what he calls his "existential quest" to
figure out who he was and how the past shaped his present, he tracked
the story of America's second great civil war: the one that pitched
conservatives and liberals in a cultural battle of traumatic
proportions, the fault lines of which still crack the country at the seams.
His is really the story over whose voice would prevail in defining
America's self-identity, the nation's own "existential quest" that
finds its most enigmatic and revealing pop culture corollary in the
grey-flannel figure of Don Draper.
Draper, not in any way incidentally, is an ad man, licensed to
understand and exploit people's ideals, secret desires and fantasy
projections of who they wish to be. As well as his psychological
state, duality is Draper's stock in trade. Like the politicians
examined by Perlstein, he's a myth peddler. In advertising as in
politics, he who pitches the best myth wins.
While Perlstein is struck by Mad Men's handling of such issues as the
emergence of feminist consciousness, the rise of youth culture and
the almost imperceptible way in which culture changes what he calls
"the fidelity with which they capture the texture of why the first
week of April of 1963 was different from the last week of April of
1963" Draper's crisis is what Perlstein describes as the series'
"most intimate story."
"But that's also a historical story," he adds, "because if you look
at the social criticism of the era The Man in the Gray Flannel
Suit, The Organization Man, David (The Lonely Crowd) Riesman's work
on other-directed, inner-directed men the idea that, let me put
this quite precisely, the ideal that society provided for a
successful man turned out to kind of ring false on a kind of
This is the key to both Draper and the decade in which he exists:
they are trying to find themselves as they go along. They're making
it up in real time. They do not know what we know, and our
fascination springs from this sense of inevitability deferred. The
mythologies do not apply because they do not yet exist. The '60s
rendered in Mad Men isn't The Sixties yet.
In describing the most profound achievement of Mad Men's take on this
most over-mythologized period of the past American century so simply,
Perlstein might also be referring to his own approach to writing history:
"It has a point of view. It's telling a story about this period. It's
not trying to be the story of the period."
The Real 'Mad Men' Behind the '60s Ad Revolution
The author of a new book talks about the cultural landscape that
transformed the advertising industry in the early 1960s.
Mad Men, AMC's critically acclaimed drama about the advertising men
who ruled Madison Avenue in the 1960s (and the women who worked and
lived with them), is coming back for its fourth season on July 25.
Apart from making '60s fashion and décor stylish again, the show
offers a fascinating take on how some of the 20th century's biggest
brands became what they are today. In her new book, Mad Men
Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America, blogger Natasha
Vargas-Cooper took a look at the real men behind the '60s ad
revolution and the cultural landscape that influenced them. She spoke
with NEWSWEEK's Isia Jasiewicz about what Don Draper can teach us
about advertising and the media now.
What is it about the advertising business of the 1960s that appeals
so much to television viewers now?
What you're seeing in Mad Men, and what you see at Sterling Cooper
[the fictional agency where creative director Don Draper and his
cohorts worked through the season-three finale], any time that Don
pitches a campaign, [it's] actually part of a creative revolution. In
Don's work we see the idea that advertising should be less about
arguing the virtues of a product and more about having some sort of
emotional connection to it. In the '60s, that was a new idea. Part of
watching the show and part of its fun is to know that Don knows what
he's talking about. The trends that were set in those boardrooms and
the way that advertising was talked about then is really how it is now.
What was it about the cultural moment of the 1960s that allowed for
this creative revolution?
It was a transitional moment in history, which is always really good
for culture and really bad for everybody else. So what you have in
Mad Men is the twilight of the Eisenhower era, right before the
counterculture youth quake. Also, you're coming out of the Second
World War. So men are exhausted, men have gone to battle, but we've
come out victorious. Now, part of the deal is to live the life you
want to live, by having the house in the suburbs and also by
exercising freedom as a consumer. Essentially, at that moment, we
became citizens last and consumers first. You go to places with less
of a consumer culture, like Latin America or Russia, and they
actually have not taken that next step with advertising. It's still
somebody arguing the virtues of a product. But in the '60s in
America, ad men cut the fat on copy to make it about an emotional
reaction to the product. Now, sometimes you don't even realize you're
looking at an ad because it's like looking at a work of art.
Speaking of art, at Sterling Cooper, we see two different types of
ad men: pure businessmen, like Pete Campbell, and artistic
visionaries, like Don Draper. How did art and business interact in
In season three of Mad Men, Sterling Cooper merges with a British ad
agency called Putnam, Powell and Lowe. In history, that's the David
Ogilvy school, which you can think of as something like a Ford
assembly line. Ogilvy, who was British, taught that there are
specific things you can do to make your ad good, like never use more
than 150 words in the descriptive text; have some cheeky headline but
no puns; don't be too clever; upsell, always upsell; don't meet them
where they're at, meet them where they want to be. The idea is get as
big as you can get by following a formula. Other people in the ad
industry called Ogilvy a traitor of the creative class, a
businessman's ad man, because in his work there was no heart; it was
all a kind of science. Don, on the other hand, represents the Chicago
school of advertising, also known as [the] Leo Burnett school of
advertising. Burnett came up with the Marlboro man and the Pillsbury
Doughboy and is known as one of the greatest ad men of the era. His
approach was to speak with a mother tongue. Instead of upselling the
client, the notion is to beam back at them who they are so they trust
you. What history has proven is that that little vanguard of Leo
Burnett and David Ogilvy, even though they had different tactics,
both had it right: don't argue, influence. Don't be a huckster, be a
tastemaker. That is still what is considered good advertising, and
it's what makes us buy things.
The structure of your booka loose collection of essays on related
ideassuggests that business, consumerism, art, and politics were all
completely entwined during this time.
I tried to re-create the cultural matrix at the time, because things
that you don't think would influence each other are actually
reactions to the same cultural force in history…While you did have
Marlboro man and you had this whole essay that appeared with it,
ultimately it was just that picture of the Marlboro man. With the
Volkswagen campaign, it was "think small." If you look in fashion at
the same time, you have men's suits getting narrower, dropping one
button, thin ties, flattered trousers. You can say one of the reasons
why that happened was that, coming out of the Second World War,
there's no room for [flourishes]. The same thing happened in women's
clothing: all of a sudden you can see women's waists. Everybody's
thinking, "We just got out of this crisis; let's come out of it with
less baggage." So the trend at the time in advertising was similar,
going toward a kind of wry minimalism.
You have made a lot of your career as a blogger. Clearly, for us
today as for the ad men of the '60s, the proliferation of new media
platforms and their impact are a key concern. What did the growth of
television advertising mean for the 1960s, and what can the
experience of the '60s teach us about dealing with new media today?
In the '60s, [TV] commercial advertising was nascent. It was really
the '70s when things kick off. But what you can see in Mad Men is
what everyone's attitude toward television is. If in conversations
the characters are resistant to taking their commercials seriously,
you know that they're not going to last. I think what they have to
doand what we have to do with new media nowis play to the strengths
of the medium. With advertising in magazines, the strength of the
medium is that you have an ability to have beautiful lush photography
and some text at the bottom. With billboards, you have an ability to
surprise people. With TV, you have an ability to show movement. In
terms of the Internet and how companies use it now, I think you want
to play to the strengths of it. One strength is that online
advertising is instantthere's instant gratification. If you have a
good ad up, you should have a button to click on the product
immediately so that there's no thinking.
Though the men at Sterling Cooper are the ones who call the shots,
the women are often the ones pulling the strings. How was the
business world changing for women in the 1960s?
You have this very interesting moment right before the women's
liberation movement. What that means is that these women, who are
established in the workforce in their mid-30s, are going to get
really angry. What was happening in '61, '62 was that men were now
established back at home, but there was that taste in the air of what
women's complete independence felt like during the war. As you have
women entering the workforce, the expectations all get a little
scrambled. Once women have access to money, to wages, and to consumer
power, what leverage do men have at that point? I think what happened
was the population advanced way quicker than the culture was ready to
adapt. That's why you get a sexual revolution, that's why you get
rebellion. You are still kind of existing under an Eisenhower
patriarchy, which does not work when you have women in the workforce
who have spending power and want to get laid and have the pill.
Season four will most likely place the men and women of Sterling
Cooper Draper Pryce in the fall of 1964. What can we expect to see
happen to the cultural and business landscape of America in the coming season?
One of the big things that happened at the beginning of that year was
that the surgeon general came out and said that smoking is bad for
you, which had never been said by the government. Then the Federal
Trade Commission comes out and says, during the summer, that there
needs to be a warning on every pack. Seeing as how Sterling Cooper
Draper Pryce's one big account is Lucky Strike, I think that's going
to cause some trouble for them. They'll have to come up with a whole
other ideology to effectively market cigarettes. Also, by 1964
Beatlemania is in full tiltrock and roll has landed! I think if
they're smart, [characters like] Pete Campbell or Peggy will say that
it will be financially lucrative to start selling lunchboxes instead
of cigarettes, because if there's anything we know now, it's that the
tween market is not to be underestimated.