Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

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“Mad Men” and the Sociology of Advertising Consumer Culture, by Venecia Suriel de Häusler

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To What Extent Did the Writer of Mad Men Know About the Sociology of Advertising Consumer Culture?

Public relations – Episode 1, Season 4

Introduction

Mad Men is a complex TV show in which topics like gender and gender role, race relations and racism, alcoholism and chain smoking, as well as homosexuality in 1960s American society are depicted. However, the main topic of the series revolves around the strategies of advertising. Through the years, the advertising industry has promoted mass consumption. Advertising has enabled consumerism by creating an appealing image for the products to be advertised, an image that is based on group behavior, social class, and the income of its potential consumers. Sometimes the industry goes even further by manipulating the creation of new social groups to aim new products at. Economic growth resulting in greater purchasing power, along with the introduction into the market of electric appliances, television, and air conditioning, decisively changed the consumer behavior of American society.  As a consequence of this change, a new consumer culture emerged in which the advertising industry functions as a central medium to create and promote product images. Mad Men depicts with striking fidelity the original business context of the American advertising industry of the 1960s. These striking similarities lead its audience to think that Mark Weiner, the writer of the show, is very much familiar with the sociology of advertising culture.

A Turning Point. Understanding the Psychological Changes of Donald “Don” Draper and Margaret “Peggy” Olson

The episode “Public Relations” first aired on American television on July 25, 2010. This new episode marks a turning point in the series; it represents new beginnings as well as a renewal in both the personal lives and the business lives of its characters.  These new beginnings are represented in the form of a new agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (SCDP), and the new brighter colors of its offices.  These new changes in the series are mostly based on the personal changes that some of the characters have undergone.  Don, the main character of the series, has significantly changed; he is now a bachelor and is in command of his own agency.  But the brightness of these colors only represents the positive external changes. On a private level his horizon still looks dreary. Don, who is still haunted by his past, divorces Betty and moves to a bachelor pad, which is decorated with a mix of antique and modern furniture. The darkness of its furniture stands for the darkness of his mysterious past, but it also resembles his previous home at the beginning of the series, which was decorated in similar colors.  By keeping the same colors his home had, he is trying to keep a sense of routine, of continuity, of emotional security; it gives him a sense of belonging, which is something his character lacks.  He even has a housekeeper who assumes his ex-wife’s task of having his dinner ready by the time he comes home.  Nevertheless, Don is a modern man who owns a television, which he normally turns on when he comes home back from the office.

Peggy, Don’s former assistant and one of the main female characters, has become more mature and self-confident; she is now a successful business woman who enjoys more than one drink, something that a couple of years before would have been unthinkable.  She becomes to represent the emancipated woman of the 1960s. She has experienced a great evolution, from being Don’s secretary to becoming his business associate; she is the master mind behind the copywriting, although her mastery is at times not properly recognized probably because she is a woman. As she has become aware of both her good qualities as a professional and her personal value, Don has to make use of his wit to convince her to join him in the new agency. In this episode, she moves into a new apartment, which is the antithesis of her old one; it is mostly painted in white, has bigger windows, and therefore, a lot of light. Her apartment is not the tidy place any ‘good’ American housewife would have, and this is precisely one of the aspects that define her as a revolutionary, feminist woman. Her new living arrangements are important because they reflect how mature and self-confident she has become.  However, she feels unable to engage in a serious relationship because her private life is still affected by the fact that she gave her baby up for adoption.  In my eyes, the adoption is a watershed in Peggy’s life because before giving up her baby, she tells her roommate that she is a grown up woman who can take her own decisions. As the season develops, she and Don become closer because they bond over the mysterious secrets of their respective past lives.

“Extravagant Expectations” and “Pseudo-Events”

In his book The Image,  Daniel J. Boorstin argues that American society is “ruled by extravagant expectations” (4); Americans, Boorsting continues, expect more than the world can offer and even more than they can make of it. He claims that people have become so accustomed to illusions that these are often mistaken for reality. As these expectations have taken over all aspects of American life, a constructed reality has become much more appealing than reality itself.  In order to fulfill their expectations, society has opted to rely on institutions that improve reality by creating synthetic appealing images of people and objects.  The creation of “synthetic novelty which has flooded our experience” is what the author defines as “pseudo-events” (9).

The opening of the episode “Public Relations” presents Don and a journalist in a restaurant.  The journalist is interviewing Don to write an article about him, portraying Don as the master mind behind SCDP.  At the start of the interview, the journalist asks Don “who is Don Draper?” (00:39) Don is puzzled by it because he does not see the superficial intent of the question; instead he thinks of it as having a deeper intent. Given the nature of his past, his past he feels irritated by the question and asks the journalist, “What do men say when you ask that?” (00:57) The journalist answers, “Well, they usually take a minute to think about it, and then they do something cute” (01:01). This initial conversation should have been Don’s cue to come up with something interesting, something that people would have cared to hear about. Afterwards, he is asked about his intent when creating the Glo-coat wax commercial and instead of portraying the creative process of the commercial as something epic, he gives his real reasons for having created it. With this action, he definitely misses the opportunity he was given to create an illusion out of himself and his work.  Don’s behavior towards his interviewer frustrates the objective his company had of creating a “pseudo-event” out of the interview that benefits the image of the agency. On a personal level, during this scene Don is in a predicament. On the one hand, he cannot give precise answers because he does not know who he really is.  On the other hand, if he is honest with the journalist and tells him the truth about himself, he will probably cause irreversible damage to his public image as an adman.  This scene is a clear example of how “pseudo-events” are created.  Boorstin points out the main characteristics of “pseudo-events:” first, they are not spontaneous but rather incited and planned, which is the goal of the interview with Don. During the interview, even the journalist is longing for something great to report about, but all he gets told is pale, unflattering reality.  Second, “its occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media” (111). Don’s associates wanted him to give the interview in order to gain publicity for their agency, and therefore to benefit its business. Third, ambiguity is an important quality when it comes to “pseudo-events” and Don could have had introduced some elements of ambiguity when talking about the commercial in order to give his work an interesting perspective and a new dimension so people would talk about it. Last, a “pseudo-event is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy” (12). If Don had portrayed himself and his ads as products of epic proportions, then everybody would have beheld them as such. Rather than that, the article proved to be dull and unflattering for both Don’s image and the image of the agency.

Since “pseudo-events” are created to impress, they necessarily have to overshadow real events.  Boorstin argues that synthetic-created events are more dramatic and vivid since they are conceived for dissemination. Moreover, it costs money to create them and usually their impression can be re-enforced and repeated at will. But one of the more poignant characteristics of created events, Boorstin continues, is that “they dominate our consciousness simply because there are more of them, and ever more” (40) since their creation does not cease. At the end of the episode, Don decides to try a new interview, this time with the Wall Street Journal. In this new interview, he gives the journalist the answers expected from a person of his position; even his body language is more relaxed than it was in the first interview. He attempts to give thrilling answers that wake the interest of the journalist and appears more willing to perform the role that has been assigned to him by his business associates.  By the second interview, Don has understood that whether the answers differ from reality or not, their focus should lie on the way they are given and on how interestingly and ambiguously they are presented. Apparently, he has come to terms with the fact that answers per se are not altogether important, but the way they are told is important because “the image has more dignity than its original” (37). By telling the interviewer how SCDP came into being, he contributes to the design of a spectacular image for the agency. This image perfectly refracts the conception of the American Dream in terms of prosperity and the achievement of upward mobility through hard work.

“Product Personality” and “Cultural-Types”

In “Public Relations,” two different products advertised by Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are presented:  a bikini from a company named Jantzen, and Sugarberry, a brand of canned Thanksgiving ham.  Each product requires different strategies to be introduced to the consumers. Jantzen is a self-defined family company that produces bathing suits. It seeks the collaboration of SCDP to advertise its new product, a two-piece bathing suit. Nevertheless, Jantzen claims that its two-piece bathing suit is not a bikini since to the executives at Jantzen bikinis are only underwear to be used at the beach. Based on this opinion, they demand that the agency advertise two-piece bathing suits. A catalog resembling a girlie magazine should be released along with the conservative campaign they require from the agency. As there are other companies producing and selling the same sort of product, Don opts for giving the two-piece bathing suits from Jantzen its very own personality. So, during the meeting, the clients are bewildered by Don’s question of whether they want women who want a bikini to buy their two-piece bathing suit or if they want women who want a two-piece to not buy a bikini.  This part of the episode demonstrates that the most appealing characteristic a product might have is not to be found in the product itself, but in the personality it has. This thesis was introduced by Daniel Riesman in his book The Lonely Crowd, where he states that “economists apply the term product differentiation to a firm’s effort to distinguish products not by price but by small differences, […] in connection with advertising […]” (46).  Since the modern market is flooded with a wide range of items that serve the same purpose, they should be given their own personality in order to create a successful product placement. Wristwatches, for example, all have the same function, to display time, but it is the product differentiation that makes them attractive for different social groups. One of the more salient differences is quality because it can establish a difference of style and status among social groups with different purchasing power. Towards the end of Public Relations, Jantzen and SCDP part ways after Don and his team design a very daring campaign that Jantzen does not agree with, since they claim their customers are modest people. Don tells Jantzen that their competitors get bigger the smaller their products are, while they are going to either stay the same or become smaller due to their unwillingness to take risks. This statement shows that admen were aware of the social behavioral changes society was going through during the 1960s. According to Riesman, these changes are mainly cultural; he argues that there are three different cultural types:  “tradition-directed,” “inner-directed,” and “other-directed.” Riesman defines the “tradition-directed” type as the cultural group “where the activity of the individual is determined by characterologically grounded obedience to traditions” (11). This type corresponds to the modern definition of conservatism. The “inner-directed” type represents an evolution of the “tradition-directed” people because this one does break the “obedience to traditions” pattern by not strictly behaving according to social norms. Even though they “are concerned with behavioral conformity” they “cannot be satisfied with behavioral conformity alone” (15). The third and more relevant type is the “other-oriented,” which first appeared in the 1960s American society. This “cultural type” is modern, innovative, and cosmopolitan; it has “an increased consumption of words and images from the new mass media of communications” (20). The “other-oriented” type forms the newly-emerged middle class. This new middle class is willing to take risks and as a result of the economic prosperity of the 1960s, has a higher purchasing power than its predecessors. Admen like Don are aware of this social change but his clients at Jantzen, who in the episode are portrayed as conservative people, are not.

Sugarberry, the other product to be advertised in the episode “Public Relations,” represents a challenge for the creative people at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. The ad executives Peggy and Peter Cambell have to demonstrate their skills to increase the sales of a product that as a result of the wrong testing strategy has become a shelf-warmer.  To redress this issue, both of them develop a bold strategy that mainly relies on improvisation. As “other-directed” individuals they take high risks and are confronted with unexpected inconveniences.  Nevertheless, the risk they have taken yields positive results for both the selling and the image of the ham. Sugarberry is a new product that, if successful, will become an important account for the agency. The only problem is that it is being tested in four markets located in Queens, and two of these markets are in Jewish neighborhoods. For this reason, its sale is stagnant and this stagnation is negatively affecting business at SCDP. During an informal meeting between Peter, Peggy, and her collaborator, she has the idea of having a hundred women buy all the ham available in those markets in one single day.  Peter argues that an extremely large line would represent a problem, but, moreover, that they cannot charge the client for this action. Peggy says that this will be a situation everybody will talk about; she finally convinces Peter who offers his expense account to cover the added expenses, while Peggy introduces her idea of two women fighting over the last ham at Thanksgiving.  They go ahead with the plan, the expected result is achieved and the incident lands in the newspaper. Through their risky PR stunt they created a “pseudo-event” that rescued the product and gained the agency a new account. One of the ideas resulting from this informal meeting is also the slogan to use in the advertising campaign of the ham: “Our hams are worth fighting for.”

Conclusion

As created images have become more appealing to us than reality, having customized articles to represent one’s social status has become widespread. Nevertheless, people have given up their power to dictate what they need or want to have, which has resulted on they no longer being decision makers. Instead, the decision about what we might or might not want is largely and almost exclusively made by the advertising industry, which not only tells us what products enhance our image and suit our status better, but also has developed tools to constantly create (and re-create) new necessities for us. Due to this advertising dynamic, we have learned that projecting a synthetic image of ourselves is much better than showing a real image because real images are, since the advertising age, regarded as deflated and insipid qualities of human beings.  Suddenly, shoes are not only shoes but a status symbol, since depending on their design, they could be more or less representative.  A car is not only a transportation medium that might, to some extent, have comfortable features; it has to have additional, better features to make it suitable for a given social group. As the middle class grows and its purchasing power increases, we learn that happiness and success are measured by the quantity and the quality of the objects that we accumulate. The storyline of Mad Men shows that its writer is well informed about the social and cultural evolution of American society, its consumer behavior, and the ever evolving advertising industry, which constantly reinvents itself to remain in compliance with the demands of its customers.

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