Mad Men and me

April 19, 2010

For the last year or so, the BBC has been earning its licence fee – from me at least – by screening a series called Mad Men. Now you’ll know all about this, I expect, but I just wanted to prove my advertising chops by giving you an inside track into why I like it – and being a smart-arse and pointing out one glaring error.

And no,  I don’t just like it because of the heroic smoking, the misogyny and the frustrated 1950s housewives, the Martinis at 9 o’clock in the morning  and the cantilever bras, although obviously these all ad (see what I did there?) to the enjoyment.

No, it’s the clever use of social mobility. In the first series, Don Draper, the hero/anti-hero, was seen  juggling beautiful wife and young family, demanding career as creative genius and all-round hero-worship figure – and philandering serial adulterer. He seemed thoroughly middle-class, and anyway no one had the time or inclination to check out his background, but gradually his past is uncovered. During the Korean war he swapped dog-tags with a a dead man from a more privileged background to leapfrog into a higher social stratum.

The point here is not that he did it, but that he thought it was necessary, and this flies in the face of the old American myth from log cabin to White House. As we see in the second series, Don did come from a log cabin, but he needed to invent a past in order  to, as he saw it, move up in the world. He was worried that his obvious gifts would never be recognised, that his past would catch up with him, and he’d be back on the farm, or more likely in the gutter, and that’s the fear that keeps him going. Not a new idea or even that deep – all the Harold Robbins heroes in those schlock 70s best-sellers had the same motivation – just beautifully unveiled.

The other thing that either enhances it or spoils it – I can’t make up my mind – is that Don’s agency, Sterling Cooper, is acquired by a British firm.  Apart from giving a couple of yanks (I assume) the chance to practice their silly-arse British accents, this doesn’t add much to the story.

It is also historically wrong because exchange controls regulations meant that money couldn’t leave the country, certainly not to buy New York ad agencies, between World War Two and Margaret Thatcher. I fact, most of the traffic was the other way in the 1960s, as American agencies moved into London to service their multi-national clients.

Does this matter? No, not really.  The story takes place in a parallel universe, where Kennedy was still assassinated but where there was no World War Two. There was a depression, farmers did suffer and Don’s father got kicked to death by his own horse, but it’s not the world, exactly as we know it. And that’s called art, to step outside, take a look, and the step back inside when it’s over. And this is great art, and like all really great art, it’s about the day to day, with a touch of the eternal.

Oh, and at the end of last night’s show, they steal an agency’s files to start a new one. Lovely. Must do that myself one day 😉

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