Arts and Culture

How 'Mad Men' Sold Us

Draper's into kink. Sterling's flogging a memoir. The show seduces through pure marketing genius (just in time for Christmas!)

By Shannon Rupp 23 Nov 2010 |

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Read her previous articles here.

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They've made us satisfied, cynical customers.

The arrival of Mad Men character Roger Sterling's memoir (just in time for Christmas!) confirms what we've long suspected about television's most brilliant show -- there's a real life Don Draper behind the scenes manipulating the audience and changing the world.

Originally, Mad Men looked like a sort of forensic historical drama. It was going to tell us how North America's sick consumer culture got here from there. But it went one better. Like all good writing it didn't tell us, it showed us. Or rather, it let us experience it, as the producers turned us into the dupes that Don and Peggy have in mind when they're pitching an idea.

The show has grown into one huge, lucrative postmodern joke. Mad Men isn't just a drama set in the advertising world, it's a primer on how to manipulate the mob.

First they sell sex...

Everyone knows sex sells, and Mad Men lays it on with a trowel, exploiting '60s sexism to resurrect things like Playboy Bunnies -- which suddenly have been turning up at many a Halloween party, in a sadly un-ironic style.

As innovative advertisers, they're pushing the envelope, and this season they added a little light porn to the mix. One episode featured Don Draper, tied spread-eagle on a bed, and straddled by a hooker who was paid to smack him.

I grant you that sly references to bondage in edgy pop songs have been de rigueur since punk days. And sitcoms have long incorporated kinky sex jokes. But they always pretended other people were doing that, not our heroes. Mad Men was the first mainstream show in which I'd seen the hero willingly tied in knots.

Because the show is smart, there were good literary reasons for that scene. But what it really told us is that middle class Middle America was buying this -- or perhaps being sold on it?

I fear for what I might see at next year's Halloween parties.

Then they sell violence...

For a show that takes place in a Madison Avenue office there is a remarkable amount of violence, including rape and fistfights. Don gets pummeled to a pulp for his bad decisions fairly often.

But I marveled at the ingenuity of Season 3's over-the-top horror film scene when the lawnmower ran-amuck in the office. It was a Quentin Tarantino mix of violence and humour with blood splattered across white walls and sedate secretaries scattering in panic. On hearing that one of the ad firm's new owners lost a foot, Roger quips, "Gee -- and he just got it in the door."

That, by the way, is why Roger Sterling is my favourite character. (Draper may look like Jon Hamm, but he's just such a pill.)

They peddle connection...

When you learn about advertising techniques, one of the things you're taught is that people are longing for a sense of belonging. That angst has been fuelling art since the 19th century -- think of E.M Forester's famous line in Howard's End, "Only connect."

So the smart copywriter can drive the herd by giving people the illusion that they belong to something bigger than themselves. That's what wearing branded clothes is about. Or joining Facebook. It's all about clinging to the illusion that you are not going to die alone and unloved in a godless universe. (Good luck with that, by the way.)

Mad Men creates community via clever cross-promotions with shops like Banana Republic; quizzes asking which Mad Men character you are; and avatar-building sites that allow you to Mad Men-ize yourself.

Roger's memoir Sterling's Gold doubles as both a Season 4 plot-point and a way to include us in that reality while recycling five years of witticisms in stocking-stuffer form.

If blogs-to-books are called blooks what do we call scripts-to-books?

Easy money.

They expand their market by being inclusive...

Women are more interested in narrative and comprise the majority of the audience for any story-telling entertainment, which is a tricky problem for a show like Mad Men. So they combat those misogyny-laced storylines with a kind of faux feminist perspective in the real world, represented by actress Christina Hendricks' plus-size body. (Reportedly, a shocking size 10.)

Hendrick's Joan is a delicious character. A smart woman who made sexual power an advantage in an era when it was often a liability. But most of the magazines focus on the size of Hendrick's thighs. Five years in, there are still articles and discussions about whether her chunky profile is beautiful and how tough it is for her to get Emmy dresses from designers (who prefer the size 2 set). It's tiresome -- and obviously PR-driven.

But they have successfully created a Cult of Joan with the sort of women who might be expected to despise the show. At the same time they corralled the fashionastas with a stunning wardrobe for Grace Kelly-lookalike, January Jones.

Personally, I'm a sucker for the semiotics of clothes and Mad Men's costume designer Janie Bryant is a master of the craft. Did you notice how many blue outfits there were this season, reflecting the general sadness of the characters?

Now we can all play along, thanks to Bryant's book The Fashion File (just in time for Christmas!). It tells us how to dress like Joan, Betty, or even The Don.

They sold us on cynicism...

Perhaps Mad Men's greatest success is that we don't notice the show is a disturbing look at the soul-destroying evolution of propaganda in modern life. We're so caught up in the glamour that we're embracing those cynical values instead of shuddering.

This hit home for me a couple of weeks ago, when a friend who runs an arts group announced that he felt just like he was living in Sterling-Cooper's world. His organization did some classic one-way mirror focus groups, and I assumed he was making a wry observation about how grim things were in his business that they'd resorted to this questionable tactic.

"Are you saying you hit on the facilitator?" I quipped, casting him as Draper. "Or were you propositioning customers? You know you can get into trouble for that now..."

Although in his case it might be a good marketing strategy. He rocks a suit as well as Hamm and has a largely female clientele. So I teased that I'd like to interview him for a business article: A Real Life Don Draper's Guide to Customer Relations. (Wink, wink; nudge, nudge.)

I was joking. But he wasn't. He, and everyone else, thought it was just fine to be cast in the Mad Men light and to admit to using focus groups. (That's something that people in creative businesses used to be discreet about, or even deny, because it suggests their products have so little value that they have to resort to the manipulative tricks of soap sellers.)

Somehow, Mad Men has changed all that.

That's the artistry of the puppeteers pulling these strings. They've made it chi-chi and weirdly comforting to have crass commercialism infecting every aspect of our lives.

No one is immune. I'm off to buy Sterling's Gold for a man whose quick wit and repeated claims that he's deeply shallow prompted me to comment that he is a real life Roger.

"You think I'm the sort of greying guy who's likely to have a heart attack while shtupping a 25-year-old?" he asked, without missing a beat.

Okay, maybe a few of us are still immune. But he's only on Season 2. He'll succumb by Xmas and his third Tom Collins.  [Tyee]

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