Sincere ties that bind; Mad Men tackles the world of atomic age advertising
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 7 August 2007)

The myth of the advertising guy as a glamorous, unscrupulous sycophant began in the grand old days of George Washington Hill (1884-1946), who made a fortune from Lucky Strike cigarettes even in the Depression and became renowned as the most sadistic client who ever tortured an account executive.

He inspired Frederic Wakeman's best-selling novel, The Hucksters, about a New York agency tyrannized by Evan Llewelyn Evans of Beautee Soap. The agency, patterned on the most famous ad factory of its time, Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (BBD&O), contains armies of ambitious young men who plot to knife each other in the back when not concocting banalities to satisfy barely literate clients. A famous joke expressed their pathetic eagerness to please: Client "What time is it? Account executive "What time would you like it to be?"

Seeing ad people this way was, of course, unfair, a gross caricature, a case of professional defamation. Still, the trade journal Advertising Age chose Wakeman's trashy but readable fiction as the industry's main event of 1946. The Hucksters, and the Clark Gable movie based on it, did for advertising what Sir Walter Scott and Ivanhoe did for the Middle Ages: They gave it definition.

Wakeman's version of advertising, imitated by scores of others at the time but now largely forgotten, has been cleverly resuscitated this season in a new TV show, Mad Men, the work of Matthew Weiner, a producing and writing alumnus of The Sopranos.

Set in March, 1960, its historical moment immaculately designed, Mad Men grounds itself firmly in the tradition by wheeling up George Washington Hill himself, or a reasonable facsimile, to play a rapacious, unsatisfiable client of the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency, where the antihero of the series, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), serves as creative director and inhouse philosopher/cynic. He's absorbed the theory (a big favourite among social critics in the 1950s and 1960s) that advertising controls not only the desires of the citizens but also their imagination and feelings. "What you call love," he says at one point, "was invented by guys like me to sell nylons." He's cute in his way, but so smug you hope someone will take him into an alley and severely damage his perfect teeth.

To avoid a libel action against his novel, Wakeman had to change both Hill's name and his product. Weiner, now at a safe distance, has cleverly put Hill's real brand, Lucky Strikes, close to the centre of the action, under its own name. It's a reversal of narrative fiction's usual trick, and one I've never seen before.

Hill purchased about US$20-million worth of Lucky Strike advertising every year, more than anyone else spent on a single brand. On his radio shows the sound of a telegrapher's key introduced "LSMFT: Lucky Strike means fine tobacco!" Another slogan implied that Luckies promoted health; to avoid obesity, you should "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet." In 1942, Hill decided to cut the cost of printing, and possibly attract more women, by making the package mainly white instead of mainly green. Shamelessly the agency brought forth a patriotic slogan, "Lucky Strike Green has gone to war," explaining that green ink was needed by the armed services.

In the first episode of Mad Men, Don the creative genius searches for a slogan and eventually comes up with "It's Toasted." When the manufacturers tell him that in fact all cigarette tobacco is toasted, he explains patiently that this doesn't matter: Lucky Strike will be the only one to brag about it. Luckies used precisely that slogan in Hill's youth, during the First World War.

Mad Men has a chance to go a long way, if only the producers can make all this Madison Avenue history come alive. (Don has been asked to shape the campaign of Richard Nixon, who will face John F. Kennedy in the presidential election, seven months in the future.)

On questions of style, Weiner and his colleagues have the era nicely in hand. People in narrow jackets and neat neckties ("sincere ties," Wakeman's characters called them, in a phrase that entered the language for a while) smoke endless cigarettes while ordering Manhattans, vodka gimlets and an infinitude of martinis. Now and then they pause to chuckle over the articles in Reader's Digest claiming that smoking will kill you or jeer at a solemn agency research director who speculates that people smoke out of the death wish Freud described.

Children jump around inside cars without seat belts. Women are either sexually harassed "girls" at the office, trying to smile through the sexual innuendo ("Why is it," asks one of them, "that every time a man takes you out to lunch, you are the dessert?") or nervous wives waiting at home in immaculate suburbs, wondering why their husbands are depressed and alcoholic.

Don Draper's wife, Betty (January Jones), has everything a woman could want (beautiful house to go with her beautiful children and handsome husband) but nevertheless suffers panic attacks -- and that's without even knowing about Don's mistress, a clever illustrator in Greenwich Village who has her own view of love. ("You know the rules," she says as she ushers Don out of her apartment, post-coitally: "I don't make plans, and I don't make breakfast.")

Don considers psychotherapy a scam but nevertheless urges Betty to takes her aching discontent to an expert. The psychiatrist turns out to be a snake who provides clandestine reports on her condition to Don ("She's a very anxious young woman"). Apparently, this being 1960, ethics and privacy haven't been invented.

Betty suffers from an identity problem that, even as she smokes and broods, is being quietly defined by a magazine writer who shares her first name and whose articles in Good Housekeeping and elsewhere are probably appearing right beside some of Don's ads. Unfulfilled, emotionally empty, Betty suffers from what the magazine writer in question has decided to call "The Problem That Has No Name," which is in turn the product of a society-wide syndrome she names The Feminine Mystique. That book, to appear just three years after Mad Men's Betty lies on the couch, will force a redefinition of the sexes. Watching her suffer in the second episode, I wanted to shout: "Hang on, honey, Betty Friedan is on the way!"

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