For the Season 2 DVD of AMC’s Mad Men, Clorox created a simple ad: it shows a man’s shirt with lipstick on the collar, while sounds of a busy office—ringing phones, clicking heels, cubicle chatter—play in the background. Typewritten text appears on-screen that reads, “Getting ad guys out of hot water for generations.” In other words, helping ad guys cheat on their wives for generations.
For those who don’t watch Mad Men—and there are a lot of people who don’t watch Mad Men—this short spot, which now also plays regularly during the season, probably seems like a perfect encapsulation of what the show is about: retro, womanizing, rat-packing office drama, where the men drink and the women serve drinks. But anyone who’s actually followed the show will likely wince at how tone deaf the spot really is. The tag line is clever, but not smart, especially for a product traditionally purchased by women on a show that may be the most feminist thing on TV.
To be sure, Mad Men, which closes out its fourth season on Sunday, does devote a lot of time to the hard-drinking, backside-slapping antics of its hero, Don Draper, and Draper’s male pals, but it also shows the consequences of this behavior for the women involved, and highlights the basic sense of privilege and entitlement that allows the boys to gallivant around the city.
In one episode this season, Draper has a few too many at work and ends up bedding—or rather, couching—his secretary, and then returns home to his loyal girlfriend. But the secretary, Megan, and the loyal girlfriend, Faye, aren’t just Don’s accessories; they’re fleshed-out characters the audience has grown to know and understand. After four seasons, viewers understand that balancing a personal life and a professional life is a near-impossible task for the women in the office, even for successful psychologist Faye. So when she shows up at Don’s door, ready to compromise her professional life to make inroads on the personal, Don’s administrative fling seems all the more unpleasant, never mind that we’ve already seen the damage he’s caused by sleeping with an employee. Actions, as Mad Men creator Matt Weiner likes to say, have consequences, and the consequences of this seemingly free-wheeling, hedonistic behavior are devastating, especially to the show’s many fantastic female characters.
That’s why it’s so frustrating that the commercials that air during Mad Men try to cash in on the show’s cachet by co-opting its ’60s-era style without picking up on any of its depth or nuance, and by leaving women on the sidelines. The result is silly, sexist ads that play up the very stereotypes that the show manages to destroy.
It’s unrealistic to expect commercials to tell the same striking, novelistic stories that Mad Men does. But advertisers who hope to impress the show’s viewers with their Mad Men aesthetic fail by ignoring the larger messages of the show in favor of a stereotypical shorthand. Take the recent Bridgestone tires ad, a spot that originally ran during the Super Bowl but that gets heavy rotation during Mad Men. The ad takes place in a future that draws heavily on a retro go-go aesthetic. That future also places a premium on Bridgestone tires, so much so that a car’s driver would rather throw his terrified wife onto a rainy street full of evil henchmen than relinquish his tires—only to have the henchmen disappointedly note that they asked for “your tires or your life,” not “wife.” It’s a punch line so corny and cruel that even Mad Men’s quipping playboy Roger Sterling would wince.
Instead of giving us ads that riff on Mad Men’s smart, subtle takes on culture, gender roles, family, and responsibility—the reason most diehard fans, the advertiser’s targets, tune in—we get ham-fisted shorthand and visual slapstick that actually have very little to do with the show. Another series of ads for various products is based around the fictional firm of Smith Winter Mitchell, a supposed ’60s-era advertising firm that so clearly mimics Mad Men that some viewers confused it for the real thing. (Which isn’t a bad strategy in the era of DVRs.) Once again, these admen are shown ogling women and making dumb jokes, a hallmark of some of Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper Draper Price staff, but without the context, balance, and perspective. On the show, that perspective comes from watching the women who work with or live with these men, and understanding how each person (well, every white person) fits into this narrative. Women on the creative team at Smith Winter Mitchell exist only to look good in skirts and provide inspiration. When an ad duo struggles to develop a Hellman’s ad campaign, they’re motivated by a sexy secretary eating a messy mayonnaise sandwich. In another, a subservient secretary offers a perfect ad pitch for Dove after serving the men coffee, but before disappearing from sight. (The two characters in these ads work on campaigns for a variety of female-targeted products, like Dove, Suave, and Vaseline.)
Compare these to the ads created by Don Draper, Mad Men’s creative genius. His work is subtle, nuanced, and thoughtful, and he’s always searching for what consumers really want and feel, though he’s hip to the notion that more often than not, advertising creates fears that can be soothed by the client’s products. He criticizes members of his team who go for the easy or expected answer. In one episode, he presses his team to understand what women really want, the better to sell them men’s deodorant—after all, women do most of the shopping. “I’ve stopped trying to figure out what they think,” sneers one junior copywriter. “Maybe I should stop paying you,” Don snaps.
Draper—or rather, the writers of Mad Men—understand that for ads to be great, they have to be true, they have to speak to some universal experience or reality shared by the target demographic. The ads that run during Mad Men do neither of those things: few men would recognize themselves in the callous driver willing to throw his terrified wife to the wolves, and few women would see themselves as the finger-licking sandwich eater or a nervous secretary with nothing to offer but canned ad copy. The commercials are lazy, unfunny, and don’t understand their target audience..
In other words: Don Draper would hate them.