Opinion: ‘Mad Men’ Unvarnished

The spot, which has all the markings of a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western, opens with a twangy score that sets a lonesome mood for the wide shot, the tense play of light and shadow. Next, we see a close-up of an unhappy cowboy behind bars who — surprise! — is actually a little boy underneath a kitchen table, imprisoned behind chair legs. He yells, “Let me outta here!” as he waits for the newly waxed kitchen floor to dry. The camera pulls back, lights are turned on and his mother enters. “Footprints are no longer a hanging offense!” she declares.

Created for Johnson’s Glo-Coat floor wax, it’s a commercial celebrated up and down Madison Avenue. Clients line up to meet the genius behind it: Don Draper of the newly launched Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Draper, of course, is fiction, as is the faux commercial that helped open the fourth season of AMC’s Mad Men. It appeared in a scene layered with the show’s characteristic cleverness: the now-divorced Draper (Jon Hamm) watches it in his dark, depressing bachelor apartment while polishing his shoes, attempting to buff his image any way he can. While he resists talking or thinking about his complicated past in psychological terms, the spot is all about him: a sad little boy, a prisoner in someone else’s house. (AMC declined to share the faux spot with Adweek. Watch the entire episode here.)

Later, he freaks out on a bathing suit client who rejects his boards, ordering him to leave and snapping his fingers as he says, “Get out.” It’s another layer relating to being imprisoned-this time to the whims of a conservative client.

For Mad Man maniacs like myself, analyzing the show’s threads and seeing how they intertwine is all part of the fun. Earlier, when Draper senses resistance, he tells the same client, Jantzen, “You need to decide what kind of company you want to be: comfortable and dead or risky and rich.” It’s obvious that he’s talking about himself.

Created by the history- and pop culture-obsessed Matthew Weiner, Mad Men, since its start, has been about identity — about who we were as a people and as a country. Weiner, who had worked on The Sopranos, chose well in turning to one of the most entertaining and thought-provoking prisms through which to view ourselves: the so-called golden age of advertising.

Contemporary pop culture has latched onto the show, as can be seen by extensions like the line of Mad Men clothing at Banana Republic and the collectible, limited-edition Mad Men Barbie dolls. It’s obvious the program fulfills a nostalgic hankering for a time that, on the surface, seemed both ordered and manageable, and glamorous and indulgent (at least, for men).

But apparently advertising great and Art & Copy star George Lois sees it as less an homage to a creative era than a rather ridiculous and misleading soap opera.

In a bizarre pairing in the August edition of Playboy, we get an angry essay about the show from Lois wrapped around the nude pictorial of Crista Flanagan, an actress who plays a secretary named Lois on the program who is famous for driving over someone’s foot with a tractor — in the office. So while one Lois shows off her alluring, dewy body parts, the other rants that the show is “oblivious to the inspiring civil rights movement, the burgeoning women’s lib movement, the evil Vietnam war and other seismic events of the turbulent, roller-coaster 1960s that altered America forever.” He also writes, “The heroic movers and shakers of the Creative Revolution … bear no resemblance to the cast of characters on Mad Men.”

In the course of the essay, however, it becomes clear that Lois hates the show because it’s not based on him. In fact, he pretty much admits this: “The more I think and write about Mad Men, the more I take the show as a personal insult. So f*ck you, Mad Men, you phony gray-flannel-suit, male-chauvinist, no-talent, WASP, white-shirted, racist, anti-Semitic Republican SOBs!”

Alrighty then. I guess he’s like a surgeon who can’t watch medical dramas — he can see that the scalpel is being held incorrectly. And he’s not entirely wrong.

The new agency, which by virtue of Draper’s superior talents and its small size is considered an upstart on the avenue, isn’t really breaking new ground, which Weiner himself has admitted. For one, in the real world, the creative revolution started with Doyle Dane Bernbach well before the new incarnation of “Sterling Cooper” launched, then grew as people like Lois broke away from DDB (Lois to start Papert, Koenig, Lois).

And Draper is no Lois, no matter how many hissy fits he throws with clients. Lois stories are legendary. One of the most famous is that he climbed out of a window and threatened to jump until his client, the owner of a matzoh company, agreed to buy his campaign. When he got back inside, the story goes, the guy offered him a job as a matzoh salesman.

Also, during the creative revolution ethnic ad men and women (think Jews, Italians and, of course, Greeks) broke into the business — and advertising took on a fresh, wise-guy tone not portrayed (yet) in Mad Men. (The show has, however, had two gay creatives so far, though one was firmly and miserably in the closet.)

But contrary to what Lois says about the show ignoring the era’s various burgeoning movements, in terms of women’s lib, at least, Mad Men’s pervasive sexism and offhand misogyny is not far off the mark. And it’s so ugly, it turns the show into a consciousness-raising session for contemporary viewers.

And while many of the show’s writers are women who weren’t even born in the mid-’60s, they say they’re using their own experiences as fodder for the scripts. Some things haven’t changed, including how advertising can sometimes feel and act like a boy’s club. Through Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), we see how careers and marriage were pretty much mutually exclusive for women at that time.

To take another movement, civil rights, Mad Men does allude to what was happening in the South, but the only African American working in the office building is the elevator operator. Sadly, that’s a pretty accurate portrayal of the times. And as we well know, African Americans are still woefully underrepresented in the ranks of the industry.

Lois also overstates things when he talks about the industry’s “heroic movers and shakers,” and the creative revolution’s effect (for the good) on society. Does anyone remember any work from the ’60s, other than a handful of PSAs, that achieved social good?

Yes, “Think Small” for VW was revolutionary and is still worshiped. But not only did Ted Bates’ Unique Selling Proposition, with its emphasis on consumer research, come into favor in the recession-hit ’70s not long after the “revolution,” but a lot of bad work was running too, and would continue to run.

Draper’s floor wax commercial is actually ahead of its time, especially for packaged goods. A spot for VIM bathroom cleaner from Zig Toronto, in which a mom is let out of “prison,” aka a shower stall, won an award at Cannes — five years ago.

If you compare Draper’s commercial with the actual Glo-Coat spot running at the time, you’ll see that its movie pretensions make it, in comparison, a dynamic work of art.

The real Glo-Coat spot is laughably awful. In it, a neighbor lady at a kitchen door is suddenly flown across the room on a flying shield. The kitchen’s owner, the perfectly coiffed Martha, responds. “You’re on the Glo-Coat shield! See, it shields against black heel marks!” This excitement continues until “little Jimmy” gets home and also is flown across the floor. And so on. At the end, a male announcer comes out, bangs his heel on the floor, Khruschchev style, and we get the super: “Twice as hard!”

I guess the special effects were state of the art, but the spot itself, in addition to showing moms off to robotic effect, includes a creepy close-up of what looks like empty doll shoes affixed to the flying shield.
Rousing!

It likely sold, however, a lot of floor wax. But it’s just the kind of advertising that caused David Ogilvy to implore, “The consumer is not an idiot. She is your wife.” It’s also the unintentional stuff of comedy and parody. About 10 years later, Louise Lasser as Mary Hartman would constantly worry and make much comic hay about her “waxy, yellow buildup.”

The original spot’s brief, to show that the product prevents heel marks, is quite different from Draper’s liberation fantasy. Instead, what he sells is his, our own struggles-a sublimated desire to get out of jail, to shed the guilt, to relive childhood, only this time, with a loving mother and a happy ending. Draper is a man who doesn’t want to analyze himself, is uncomfortable talking about his past, but somehow it keeps coming out in his work.

Mad Men isn’t so much about a creative revolution as it is about being human (and, along the way, it’s also about institutions that, to this day, are hard to change).

So, in one way, Lois is right — this isn’t an exacting and accurate portrayal of the creative revolution, but neither is it just a soap opera. It’s a show about timeless human frailty — that happens to use advertising as a backdrop.

The characters and the work that the Mad Men creators come up with are composites, just as fictional characters in novels are composites, to move the story along. But they certainly get viewers to think, both about deep stuff (what is authenticity? Can we really change identities?) and small details (how did the women hop into bed with such alacrity while wearing killer girdles?).

Does it romanticize the industry? Yes. At a time when the economy makes clients want to return to the obvious and repetitive, to supers that read “Twice as hard!,” Mad Men makes the industry seem exciting and sexy again. There’s glamour in the trance-inducing visuals and smart narrative, and just enough facts in the story to sell us on Weiner’s particular brand of Mad Ave. madness.