American Movie Classics
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I want a black Cadillac with fins like a shark. I want a shot of Seagram's in the calm hour after a rough day. I want to take a long drag on a short Camel to soothe my T zone; there'll be no irritation, four out of five doctors agree.
Sell me feeling. Sell me envy. Sell me desire. I'm buying.
The power of advertising to displace reality with fantasy lies at the core of Mad Men, which started its second season July 27 on AMC. The critically acclaimed series is set in the early 1960s—the glamorous peak of advertising, but culturally a post-Elvis, pre-Beatles crevasse—and chronicles the lives of employees at a New York ad agency, Sterling Cooper. Male executives, cigarettes dangling from their lips, canter through the office like thoroughbreds. Meanwhile, coquettes from the finest secretarial schools type, answer the phone and apply lipstick between smoking and navigating sexual advances that appear to be the men's birthright.
Yet, focusing on the sexual politics or the fetishistically faithful set design would obscure a deft and nuanced story. In Season One, we watched as the characters emerged to become as many-faced as the ribbed, crystal decanters from which the copywriters and accountants pour their fourth and fifth glasses of J&B Scotch. It is skillfully revealed how the promising creative director Don Draper, his jaw as square as a steam shovel, has excavated his dark past and rebranded himself—like Dow Chemical greenwashing itself to appear environmentally friendly. Account executive Pete Campbell, a twerpish sycophant, becomes more pinched as his marriage of convenience becomes more inconvenient. And Peggy Olson, the only woman who appears to have career ambitions, largely suppresses her sexuality to rise from typist to copywriter—but not without grave personal sacrifices.
Like advertising, Mad Men is rife with symbolism. One ad man, otherwise devoted to his wife, gallivants with a secretary at a company party. The morning after, they wake up on an office couch to discover his glasses are broken. Panic-stricken, he furiously tries to repair the frames with tape. But it's not his glasses that need mending; it's his marriage.
In Season Two, tension stretches over the episodes like skin on a drum: There is heated competition between Don and the new, meddlesome director of accounts, Duck Phillips, who wants to infuse the office with young blood, foreshadowing the youth culture that will soon dictate the ad business for the next 40-plus years. Peggy's love child (spoiler: it appears to be Pete's, conceived, unbeknownst to him, during a one-night stand) is secretly cloistered away at Peggy's mother's apartment. Marital strife between Don and his wife, Betty, intensifies as he reins in his adulterous roaming, only to need the little blue pill. Too bad—it's not been invented yet. As for Betty, she has a libido, too, and is weighing the alternatives; after all, last season she dry humped the vibrating washing machine while fantasizing about the door-to-door air-conditioning salesman.
The division between home and office personas will become more striking during this season. Don says as much in the most recent episode as he consoles Pete, whose father had been killed that day in an American Airlines crash. "There's life and there's work," Don advises. We will see how those worlds—one devoted to image, the other beholden to reality—coexist.
With the benefit of hindsight, we in the 21st century know the significance of what a real-life Don and his cohorts were doing: massaging the public's emotions to peddle a product, or at least the image of one. The public is so malleable that the strategy has choked on its own success. Ads are so omnipresent—children see at least 40,000 each year on television alone—that they no longer quietly seduce us. Instead, ads must scream for our attention, chasing us into bathroom stalls, weaseling their way onto the names of stadiums, and trolling for the soulless drones willing to tattoo logos on their bodies for a fee.
The coarseness of modern marketing is eclipsed only by the possibility of ads being beamed onto the moon. (Coke pitched the idea in the '90s, according to MediaWeek the FCC nixed it because the lasers might interfere with aircraft.)
Even our presidential campaigns are branded to emotionally connect with voters: Bush, the rugged Marlboro Man; Obama, United Colors of Benetton. John McCain is a tougher sell. McCain: easy-going, like Metamucil. That's the kind of joke Man Men copywriters would toss around, but it would never leave the room. Nonetheless, the real Mad Men trained us well. Despite the bimonthly scolding of Adbusters, an anti-consumerist magazine, advertising works on us, our social isolation and our emptiness. We buy sentiment and emotion and stick them in climate-controlled storage units, ironically, to keep them from warping.
"You feeling something," Don tells Peggy as she mulls copy for an airline. "That's what sells."