Let me be perfectly honest: I am too cheap to spend the money for “premium” TV Channels–so no AMC for me and no Mad Men until it began streaming onto Netflix last fall. I knew before I even watched one episode what the title meant because as a child, I had often heard my father call himself a “Mad Man.” I’ll admit, too, that while Dad wrote copy and was creatively involved in the production of numerous commercials and advertising campaigns, he was no Don Draper. He actually was more like Mr. Cooper. That this one show, not on a regular network, could garner so much attention and be awarded so many Emmy’s is a testament to how the public views that mythical place known as Madison Avenue. For there is nowhere else like this place where products, not even released to the general public, already have been tested and tried…and where the words that shape the American landscape originate.
The authors of the words which can annoyingly rattle around our brains for days have learned one thing: spend much time writing about what the product can do for YOU and use as few words as possible. I could rattle off a few slogans and few people wouldn’t know the end of the line (well the Baby Boomers) Like Double your pleasure, double your fun with ….. or Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what…. . Even a logo…without words conveys a powerful message, cueing your brain to think; hunger, running shoes, disaster. Few people around the world do not know what the Golden Arches mean. And, afterward how thankful for the relief an Alka Seltzer can bring! So–Mad Men became for me an addiction–binge watching to see just what it was that I did not know about in the 1960’s and ’70’s when Dad was a true Mad Man. (Because while I alive then, I was really too young to live it, if you know what I mean.)
Dad was an advertising executive for J. Walter Thompson, and our lives as children were pretty interesting from that perspective. We never knew if Dad would come home with a big box–RCA Color television–or a case of an unusual soda in dark green bottles or bring my mother several cartons of Lark cigarettes or not come home at all.( Kind of like Don Draper.) And our mother could sometimes be Betty! Smoking in the dark alone in her bedroom!
What really lured me into consuming this show was mention of ad campaigns I knew my father had taken part in as a Creative Director. You see, even though Sterling and Cooper is the name of the small agency in Mad Men, the fact is that J. Walter Thompson created the commercials for Ponds (that so soft skin!) and Pan Am and Heinz. Oscar Mayer Weiner. And Kodak–how could I forget that? When Don Draper presented the Kodak carousel slide projector in Season 1, episode 12, I almost cried. We had one because wherever our father was, he was there with his camera or movie camera recording our lives for posterity. (Granted there are about 8 miles of film with all our relatives shielding their faces with their hands, but they’re there forever immortalized on film.)
We were probably the only family on our block who spent more time watching TV commercials instead of the shows, which is why the reruns of old TV shows are almost totally new to me now. Seriously, Dad would question us as kids. What was the message in that commercial? How did you like that one? Who was the that commercial aimed at? We were probably the only kids who spent their time thinking about how the Mad Men went about creating the illusion that Palmolive Dish Liquid was infinitely superior to Ivory Dish Liquid or why SOS scrubbing pads scraped stuck on grease better than Brillo. (Spoiler Alert: Both Brillo and SOS scrubbing pads were manufactured by Proctor and Gamble: just a ploy to get you to buy the more expensive SOS pads.)
Dinner time found us sometimes talking about new products that Dad brought home from the office. One evening, I guess I was about 7 or 8 years old, he brought home a box of sodas in dark green bottles. We hadn’t tasted anything quite like this drink, which was clear and bubbly. And the discussion went something like this: “Which kind of drink do like better: coke or this ?” Our response was not what he wanted to hear. So Dad tried another tact. “Well, what would you call this drink?” Our responses: “It’s definitely not coke!” “It’s definitely more bubbly.” “It’s definitely like an uncoke.” And our Dad–“The UNCOLA!” We never got paid for our contributions. But we did get to drink a lot of 7-Up that summer.
Dad would have lots to say about Mad Men if he could have been sitting on the sofa next to me watching, there’s no doubt. How much of that show is based on what truly went on in advertising agencies during the 60’s might be up for some debate. I can hear him now–“No, that’s not the way it was,” or “Did we really smoke that many cigarettes in 5 minutes?” (In a word. Yes.) I wonder, too, how Mom would have reacted. She certainly did not grow up as prissy as Betty but there were times when I saw the hurt in Betty’s face–the same hurt reflected in my mother’s eyes when Dad didn’t show up for dinner the third night in a row. What Mad Men does better than any documentary or docudrama is this: captures the essence of an age where innocence was lost during the one decade of my life when society seemed to change more than any other time–and the Mad Men in advertising stayed just one step ahead in the Age of Aquarius.