Advertising is not about products, right? It’s the idea they’re trying to sell you. The focus of the flat-screen TV commercial is not the TV, it’s the cool guy out at a bar with his biracial buddies, or the handsome family in a big house stocked with velvet furniture.
Advertising is lying. If you can lie about who you are and what you’ve done, you can be a great, great ad man. Or woman. But what does that mean?
“Mad Men” has really been f*cking with my mind lately.
Last year’s season had a lot of death – Lane’s suicide, and that murderous dream of Don Draper’s, and Pete Campbell’s bubbling rage, and Texas-tower-shooter Charles Whitman and the Chicago-nurse-rapist-killer Richard Speck….
An already-dark show is getting darker. In this season’s premier, Roger Sterling screamed “It’s MY funeral!” at well-wishers attending his mother’s funeral, while Don got so drunk he puked and then slurred at his doorman, recently resuscitated after a heart attack, “What’d you see when you died!” Don’s been doodling nooses during meetings, and his Hawaii vacation campaign idea freaked out the clients because the ad looked like someone wandered naked into the ocean to drown alone.
Draper was the coolest man in the world when this started. He’s still the same guy, still looks and acts the same, except now he’s reading Dante’s Inferno, about the horrifying descent into hell. He’s still the same guy but the world around him is changing, and his Madison-Avenue-ad-man brilliant insight into the human condition doesn’t work anymore. We just saw him get crushed pitching a ketchup campaign. That didn’t happen in 1960. Now it’s 1968, and his stuff is stale.
Because he’s an intense guy with no morals and a weird, terrible, tragic, guilt-ridden personal history, we are compelled to watch his journey through the 1960s, when our country turned dramatically from one thing into another. Writers smoke weed at the office all of a sudden, and slicked-down hairdos and tight suits are going out of style.
My pregnant wife and I (first kid) have been catching up on Draper’s past with Netflix. It’s evil. Recall Don Draper was once Dick Whitman, unloved loser son of a whore, who stole the identity of a man he accidentally killed moments after pissing himself in a ditch during the Korean War. The real Don Draper died screaming because Dick Whitman dropped his lighter while wiping his pants. In the explosion’s aftermath, Whitman peeled dog tags from the charred, sticky corpse and swapped them with his own.
In Season One of “Mad Men,” Draper’s secretary Peggy gets pregnant with a coworker’s love child. She (acts like she) doesn’t even know she’s carrying a child until it’s time to give birth. Then she refuses to hold her newborn baby. She doesn’t want it, but she doesn’t know what to do.
To a normal person, this is atrocious. But she wakes in the hospital to see Don at her bedside, and he dispenses some advice: “Get out of here, and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.”
For a while, maybe.
The very first “Mad Men” episode sees Draper engaging a crisis. Reader’s Digest has revealed smoking causes cancer, and everyone’s talking about it. Draper’s biggest client is the cigarette company Lucky Strike, whose brass comes in for a meeting. Pete Campbell (a borderline psychopath then and now) tells the Lucky Strike guys to embrace the report. He says psychologists believe people have a death wish, which means they can make the cancer news work for them.
This infuriates them. Lucky Strike will not to cop to killing their customers, even if that’s what they’re doing. They’re fixing to storm out when Don stops them. He asks how the cigarettes get made. Part of the process, they say, is toasting the tobacco. Okay, Draper says, and he writes “IT’S TOASTED” on the blackboard behind him. Trot out doctors or dispute the report and all people will think about is death, he said. What they need to do is ignore the threat of death.
“Advertising,” Don says, “is happiness.”
He had a hot artist girlfriend back then, who told him before that meeting she was sure he could get past the report and “lead the sheep to slaughter.” He could. Oh man could Don Draper sell an idea about what people really want in their souls. Especially with cigarettes, because doing so means ignoring death, and ignoring death is the biggest lie of all.
With another client, much later on, Don says “Listen, I’m not here to tell you about Jesus. You already know about Jesus. Either he lives in your heart, or he doesn’t.” They’re not selling lipstick, they’re selling religion. They’re counting on you to believe their assumptions about you, and it’s a kind of voodoo:
Again, more awesome lies.
Before she had her baby, Peggy grew (literally, because the Mad Men are mean to heavier women) into an outcast at the office. She winds up confessing tearfully to Don, “I don’t understand. I try to do my job. I follow the rules. And people hate me. Innocent people get hurt and other people, people who are not good, get to walk around doing whatever they want. It’s not fair.”
Don gave her a drink, told her to finish it and get out of his office. Lying cheaters thrive. If your soul wasn’t worth anything you wouldn’t be able to sell it. And look at Peggy now – stealing Heinz Ketchup, “the Coca-Cola of condiments.” She’s young and tapped-in, and the forgotten baby is forgotten.
One day she’ll lose the fun that comes with being king, and she’ll have a horrible secret to reckon with.
I hate advertising. It was a corrosive demon in the real era of the Mad Men, manipulating Americans into buying things they didn’t need, enabling our transformation into zombie consumers. It’s worse now. We don’t even notice how frequently ads dominate our time, and Monsanto and Dow Chemical and the government are all very grateful for that.
I should hate Don Draper, too. He is the corrosive demon. For all the evil he’s done, all that lying, he deserves the damnation that awaits. But I can’t hate him. I feel so sorry for him. And I can’t figure out why that is….