Lies, Lies, and Advertising

by francine Hardaway on October 1, 2007

Since it began, I’ve been glued to AMC’s series “Mad Men.” Because of the sporadic way in which I choose and watch TV programs, I didn’t know until I started this post that it was written by Matthew Weiner, who wrote “The Sopranos.” We are now ten episodes into it, and since you can download them to ITunes, I thought I’d share my impressions with you.

“Mad Men” is about the advertising world of 1960 in New York. In 1963, I had my first job in advertising, at J Walter Thompson company in New York. So the first thing I noticed about the program is how true it was to my first glamour job, a job in which I, as an Ivy League graduate, typed copy on an old Remington typewriter while the men around me who wrote it went to meetings. Because I was a fast typist, I had plenty of time to polish my nails and wonder what the meetings were about. I remember some of my boss’s clients were Preparation H, Sinutabs, Singer Sewing Machines, and Maxwell House Coffee. I remember this because I was in Singer’s corporate offices delivering (yes, I was also a messenger) something when I heard about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The office was at the top of 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

Why do I remember this so vividly? First, because everybody remembers where they were when Kennedy was assassinated. It was the 9/11 of my generation. Second, because after that I quit the glamor job to go back to school, disgusted with the opportunities for women in the workplace.

And that’s what “Mad Men” depicts. The women are sex objects and chattel. The men are hot shits, chain smoking, drinking in the office, and cheating on their wives. This was still the Eisenhower era, in which women tried to be happy as “homemakers,” while their husbands called them at dinner time to say they’d be late. Said husbands were in the arms of their secretaries. The homemakers were neurotic. The secretaries were frantic. Birth control was new.

I grew up in an era of lying, about everything from whether cigarettes caused cancer to where you were in the evening. Everything was about appearances: how could you “spin” cigarette information so it didn’t look dangerous. How could you “sell” Nixon. And in my real life job? How could you convince everyone who had a headache that it was a sinus headache. This carried over into family life: how could you “sell” the cute new thing in the office on bedding down with you rather than with the guy in the next office?

The main character in “Mad Men,” Don Drake, is conflicted about these lies, of course, because he’s the hero. But his wife has no idea how and where he grew up, just as he has no idea why she is losing feeling in her hands. Only his mistress, who is also his client, knows. Don may be conflicted, but he’s a great liar.

We only find out about Don’s shabby origins because his work buddy, Roger, has a heart attack while screwing a 20-year-old model on the floor of the office while HIS wife and family are away for Labor Day weekend. Of course Don has to cover for him as he is wheeled out of the office naked on a gurney. “He just keeled over at his desk,” says Don loyally, after telling both his girl and Roger’s girl to scoot out of the agency.

Don goes to the hospital with Roger, who says “I always thought it would be the ulcer that got me. I did everything I could; I ate the butter, I drank the cream. And then I had this damned coronary.” 1960 was before we made the connection between heart attacks and cholesterol, heart attacks and smoking, heart attacks and stress. Anything could have caused Roger’s coronary. Karma would be my guess.

But it scares the sh*t out of Don, who runs over to find his mistress at home in the middle of the night. His wife? He calls her to tell her he is staying in the City. Stay tuned.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Merlin Ward October 1, 2007 at 3:28 pm

What an awesome review! I haven’t even heard of this show, but I’m definitely going to check it out.

It also didn’t occur to me till now that you were working when JFK was shot. I had to take a moment and reflect on that.

francine hardaway October 1, 2007 at 3:43 pm

Don’t let these faux-colored locks fool you. That was my first job. And actually my last, for a long time. Convinced me to be an entrepreneur–all that powerlessness.

David LaPlante October 1, 2007 at 10:29 pm

I just said goodnight to my mother-in-law who was 19 years-old and engaged in 1960. I spent most of the evening (again) tremendously entertained by her stories of being a Las Vegas housewife in the 60s while raising 4 kids. It could just as easily be a sequel to Mad Men…the things she saw…

What a great show! What an excellent wake-up to how far we’ve come (except in foreign policy) since 1960!

Having entered the world of advertising in 1990 — thirty years later — I see how my attitude towards what I perceived to be hypersensitivity to the whole “sexual harassment” of the past is not so hypersensitive. I’ve never really seen/experienced the things portrayed in the context of this show, but listening to my mother-in-law seems to confirm it all…New York or in Vegas.

francine hardaway October 2, 2007 at 3:04 pm

Oh yeah, Vegas in the 60s was even worse than NY because the mob guys who got kicked out of Cuba by Castro set up shop there. Good thing your mother in law, who sounds like she’s my age, wasn’t working in Vegas. That would have been worse. Advertising in the 90s is totally different.

Susan F. Heywood October 3, 2007 at 5:56 pm

I, too, am addicted to MadMen. Hearing your experiences at the time and learning that the atmosphere was really like that was fascinating.

One thing that struck me at the end of last week’s episode was that when Don’s boss had the heart attack, there was very little that could be done to help him at the hospital. It’s sobering to remember that stents and bypasses weren’t an option, even for the well-off. Even in 1969, when my father died of a heart attack, we had never even heard of CPR.

francine hardaway October 3, 2007 at 6:00 pm

I presume Roger lives, but at that time they may not have had cardiac rehab either, and people who survived spent their lives as cardiac cripples.

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