The iconic AMC series Mad Men ended its run Monday, May 17, 2015 after seven seasons portraying a decade. That decade was the 1960s, the decade when America found it was not infallible, and a decade that changed America forever. For me, it was part Memory Lane and part history lesson. Here are six of the reasons I was glued to this narrative of the advertising industry in the 1960s.
Mad Men is one of the best television shows in the history of television. The Wire (HBO) is the best, in my opinion, but these epic presentations of 1960s Madison Avenue and post-9/11 West Baltimore have something in common.
Neither show got huge ratings, but both created a huge “buzz.” Sometimes, it’s not the quantity of eyeballs on the screen a show garners, but the quality of those eyeballs. Each also depicts a time and place, one of which is both despicable and nostalgic, and the other, sadly with us.
And, both series will live on for many years.
1. The Cars
You have to love the cars of the era, rolling monuments to American excess, optimism and cynicism planted firmly on bias-belted Firestones. Don Draper began the first season of Mad Men rolling into his driveway in a 1959 Olds, followed that ride up with a 1960 Buick Invicta convertible, wrecked his 1961 Dodge Polara while cheating on his wife when drunk, and followed those cars with 1962 and 1965 Coupe DeVilles.
The production budget for Mad Men was higher than AMC’s usual outlay, and much of the expense may have come from filling streets with vintage cars. In film, antique cars are commonly shown as pristine, but Mad Men also showed us DeSotos and Plymouths in poor repair. As time went on in the series, Don Draper’s first wife hit the road in the ubiquitous Ford Country Squire, and the wealthy Roger Sterling of Sterling Cooper drove the classic Lincoln Continental with suicide doors.
Part of the entertainment was playing the “what kind of car is that?” game, and Mad Men never showed a ride that was inconsistent with the year it was set in. Executive Producer Matthew Weiner and staff did their homework throughout the series’ run.
2. The Technology
Rotary dial phones. Switchboards at the ad agency. Tally boards on television during the 1960 election. Once again, painstaking detail down to the “vertical roll” on the black-and-white televisions, and the color going in and out on color sets, with very few network shows broadcast in color during Mad Men‘s early seasons.
Don Draper recorded his thoughts into a Dictaphone, and pitched Kodak to name its famous slide projector of the time the “Carousel.”
The finale, “Person to Person,” showed Draper making two person-to-person calls via operator, which were the most expensive long distance calls. Station-to-station calls were less expensive, where a person would just dial “1” plus the area code and number.
Even without inflation, a family with friends and family out of town, or even as far away from Cleveland as Akron, would pay as much in long-distance charges as an unlimited talk and text plan on a 2015 cell phone.
The home and office decor also fit the times, with televisions built into living room walls and trendy furniture for its period now hard to find in antique stores. And, over the years portrayed in Mad Men, we saw those things change as the series went on, along with the fashions. Again, painstakingly accurate.
Besides, when was the last time you saw a Hotpoint refrigerator?
3. The Music
The adventures of Mad Men‘s characters were illustrated with music of the times in the episodes and at the end of the episodes. Mad Men took us from Chubby Checker to the Beatles to the Doors to David Bowie.
Closing an episode set in 1969, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” was used, and I thought “HA! Nailed you! That song came out in ’73!” Nope. David Bowie recorded “Space Oddity” in 1969.
Don Draper, trying to grasp the youth market of the time, put the Beatles’ Revolver album on his turntable. Other, more obscure music from the era was used, even including a track from the Monkees. In the episode before the finale, Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” was playing on Don Draper’s Cadillac radio when he was driving through Oklahoma right before his car broke down.
Once again, the homework was done and the music fit the mood, from getting high to getting laid. And yes, having immersed myself in music that came before my time when I was younger, it all fit perfectly.
4. The Culture
Mad Men portrayed the upper-middle class and the wealthy for the most part, and my own ability to relate is limited, being from the middle class in “flyover country.”
I know this much. People smoked back then. Non-smokers would provide ashtrays for their smoking guests in their homes. In the time depicted in Mad Men and for years thereafter, ashtrays folded out from the seat backs in movie theaters. The opulence of an American-made car was directly proportional to its number of ashtrays and lighters.
And people drank back then. Damn, did they drink. In the Mad Men era and crowd, hitting the office bar before noon was not unusual. In fact, at the time, the phrase “he can hold his liquor” was a compliment.
If someone completely unfamiliar with that era was a viewer of Mad Men, he or she would think “How did any of those people ever make it to age 40?”
Your colleague could equal you in title then, but if that colleague was female, she would not equal you in pay, and you’d still expect her to get you coffee. In 2015, the same work gets most women about 84 cents on the dollar compared to a man’s pay. In the early 1980s, that figure was 69 cents. In the era of Mad Men, it was even less.
Office comments common in that day would land you and your employer in court now on grounds of sexual harassment and racial hostility. It was not only legal to fire homosexuals; it was expected.
And yes, both Don Draper and Roger Sterling had second marriages to their twentysomething secretaries. Well, some things never change.
Ever see a “trophy wife?” Go somewhere that’s largely populated by the upper middle class or above, and you will. If I had a dollar for every time I have ridden through the national park in my area, observed a couple on expensive bicycles and thought “Sir, is that your wife or your daughter?,” my Internet access would be paid for.
Anti-semitism, while not as prevalent in the era of Henry Ford, was still rampant then, and African-Americans were tolerated at best. And yes, they were called Negroes then.
Roger Sterling in blackface singing “My Old Kentucky Home”with the original lyrics referring to the “darkies” at a Kentucky Derby party in the 1960s could not happen today. Or, maybe it could.
5. The History
Mad Men did an excellent job of integrating the history of its time, from elections to assassinations and social upheaval into its storyline.
Beginning in 1960, with Nixon running against John F. Kennedy, a female neighbor of Don Draper’s in Ossining, New York was ostracized for both being divorced and supporting Kennedy. Management at the Sterling Cooper agency were strong supporters of Nixon, and the staff leaned slightly toward Nixon.
Their all-night party in the office on Election Night 1960 was one for the ages, with them gathered around a black and white TV for the results, the water cooler filled with creme de menthe, and coitus on couches in offices.
The assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were also woven into the storylines, along with urban unrest and the police actions at the 1968 Democratic convention. But, in his wisdom, Matthew Weiner never made these events storylines in and of themselves, choosing instead to have his characters go about their lives with more subdued reactions.
Wisdom comes from Weiner putting those events in the background instead of the foreground, and not letting the show become pedantic.
6. The Ads
Partial disclosure: I’ve designed print ads in my lifetime, and also written ad copy. Thus, I am aware of many iconic campaigns from Madison Avenue that came before my time, and Mad Men wrote many of them into the show.
One was the 1960s Volkswagen campaign from Doyle Dane Bernbach with the famous “Lemon” ad. It showed a Beetle with the word “Lemon” under it, using plenty of white space and went on to explain how an inspector had rejected the car for a blemished chrome strip.
That ad broke rules. All of them, in fact. Weiner wrote the buzz about that print ad into his ad execs and creative people’s dialogue, adding additional authenticity.
Packaging, in my mind, is part of advertising. Watch Mad Men, and you will see the packaging on something as mundane as a box of Milk Duds in the theater is true to its period. Again, the homework was done.
Taking some liberties by attributing real ad campaigns to the fictitious Sterling Cooper agency, Weiner again nails the era. In the early 1960s, when the agency had the Lucky Strike cigarette account, Draper (in Mad Men, but not in real life) downplayed the growing health concerns over tobacco with the “It’s toasted” tagline. That tagline for Lucky Strike actually dates from the 1940s. OK, take that liberty. It’s forgiven.
Also, some long-defunct or nearly defunct corporations play a role in the narrative. Burger Chef has long been gone, and has anyone been to a Howard Johnson’s lately? In my childhood, Howard Johnson’s called itself the “Host of the Highways” with its bright orange roofs. Yep, all there.
Dow Chemical works its way in, with an attempt to gain consumer goodwill while the Vietnam War was splitting the nation. General Motors is also present, with the Sterling Cooper team working on the “XP” project, a car code-named “XP-884” in GM circles. We now know that car as the infamous Chevy Vega.
We see the beginning of the end of the advertising jingle, the use of sex in advertising (as much as could be done in the 1960s) and the nascent stages of computer data in advertising.
For an aficionado of advertising and its history, Mad Men was heroin.
Extra Point: A Fond Farewell
For years, Mad Men was appointment viewing for me. I did not jump in at the beginning, but any time AMC played a repeat from the early seasons, I was on it. Then, I got Netflix, and it became a Must Binge Watch.
Unlike the ending of The Sopranos, which Weiner worked on under David Chase, this was not a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot ending, but one that still left enough ambiguity to let the viewer make up his or her own mind.
The timeline of Mad Men began before I was even thought of, and ended when I was in elementary school. While my parents grieved the assassination of JFK, they still had to get on with their own lives. As did the people of Mad Men, who still had stuff to sell.
Throughout the changes of the 1960s, people still had lives to live, bills to pay and dreams to dream. The timeline of Mad Men ends around Halloween of 1970, and the famous Coca-Cola “Hilltop” ad that closes the finale first aired in early 1971.
I remember that ad, and thought it was so cool when I was a kid.
Maybe I wanted to be Don Draper when I grew up.