Mad Men, AMC’s critically acclaimed drama about the advertising men who ruled Madison Avenue in the 1960s (and the women who worked and lived with them), is coming back for its fourth season on July 25. Apart from making ’60s fashion and décor stylish again, the show offers a fascinating take on how some of the 20th century’s biggest brands became what they are today. In her new book, Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America, blogger Natasha Vargas-Cooper took a look at the real men behind the ’60s ad revolution and the cultural landscape that influenced them. She spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Isia Jasiewicz about what Don Draper can teach us about advertising and the media now.
What is it about the advertising business of the 1960s that appeals so much to television viewers now?
What you’re seeing in Mad Men, and what you see at Sterling Cooper [the fictional agency where creative director Don Draper and his cohorts worked through the season-three finale], any time that Don pitches a campaign, [it’s] actually part of a creative revolution. In Don’s work we see the idea that advertising should be less about arguing the virtues of a product and more about having some sort of emotional connection to it. In the ’60s, that was a new idea. Part of watching the show and part of its fun is to know that Don knows what he’s talking about. The trends that were set in those boardrooms and the way that advertising was talked about then is really how it is now.
What was it about the cultural moment of the 1960s that allowed for this creative revolution?
It was a transitional moment in history, which is always really good for culture and really bad for everybody else. So what you have in Mad Men is the twilight of the Eisenhower era, right before the counterculture youth quake. Also, you’re coming out of the Second World War. So men are exhausted, men have gone to battle, but we’ve come out victorious. Now, part of the deal is to live the life you want to live, by having the house in the suburbs and also by exercising freedom as a consumer. Essentially, at that moment, we became citizens last and consumers first. You go to places with less of a consumer culture, like Latin America or Russia, and they actually have not taken that next step with advertising. It’s still somebody arguing the virtues of a product. But in the ’60s in America, ad men cut the fat on copy to make it about an emotional reaction to the product. Now, sometimes you don’t even realize you’re looking at an ad because it’s like looking at a work of art.
Speaking of art, at Sterling Cooper, we see two different types of ad men: pure businessmen, like Pete Campbell, and artistic visionaries, like Don Draper. How did art and business interact in ’60s advertising?
In season three of Mad Men, Sterling Cooper merges with a British ad agency called Putnam, Powell and Lowe. In history, that’s the David Ogilvy school, which you can think of as something like a Ford assembly line. Ogilvy, who was British, taught that there are specific things you can do to make your ad good, like never use more than 150 words in the descriptive text; have some cheeky headline but no puns; don’t be too clever; upsell, always upsell; don’t meet them where they’re at, meet them where they want to be. The idea is get as big as you can get by following a formula. Other people in the ad industry called Ogilvy a traitor of the creative class, a businessman’s ad man, because in his work there was no heart; it was all a kind of science. Don, on the other hand, represents the Chicago school of advertising, also known as [the] Leo Burnett school of advertising. Burnett came up with the Marlboro man and the Pillsbury Doughboy and is known as one of the greatest ad men of the era. His approach was to speak with a mother tongue. Instead of upselling the client, the notion is to beam back at them who they are so they trust you. What history has proven is that that little vanguard of Leo Burnett and David Ogilvy, even though they had different tactics, both had it right: don’t argue, influence. Don’t be a huckster, be a tastemaker. That is still what is considered good advertising, and it’s what makes us buy things.
The structure of your book—a loose collection of essays on related ideas—suggests that business, consumerism, art, and politics were all completely entwined during this time.
I tried to re-create the cultural matrix at the time, because things that you don’t think would influence each other are actually reactions to the same cultural force in history…While you did have Marlboro man and you had this whole essay that appeared with it, ultimately it was just that picture of the Marlboro man. With the Volkswagen campaign, it was “think small.” If you look in fashion at the same time, you have men’s suits getting narrower, dropping one button, thin ties, flattered trousers. You can say one of the reasons why that happened was that, coming out of the Second World War, there’s no room for [flourishes]. The same thing happened in women’s clothing: all of a sudden you can see women’s waists. Everybody’s thinking, “We just got out of this crisis; let’s come out of it with less baggage.” So the trend at the time in advertising was similar, going toward a kind of wry minimalism.
You have made a lot of your career as a blogger. Clearly, for us today as for the ad men of the ’60s, the proliferation of new media platforms and their impact are a key concern. What did the growth of television advertising mean for the 1960s, and what can the experience of the ’60s teach us about dealing with new media today?
In the ’60s, [TV] commercial advertising was nascent. It was really the ’70s when things kick off. But what you can see in Mad Men is what everyone’s attitude toward television is. If in conversations the characters are resistant to taking their commercials seriously, you know that they’re not going to last. I think what they have to do—and what we have to do with new media now—is play to the strengths of the medium. With advertising in magazines, the strength of the medium is that you have an ability to have beautiful lush photography and some text at the bottom. With billboards, you have an ability to surprise people. With TV, you have an ability to show movement. In terms of the Internet and how companies use it now, I think you want to play to the strengths of it. One strength is that online advertising is instant—there’s instant gratification. If you have a good ad up, you should have a button to click on the product immediately so that there’s no thinking.
Though the men at Sterling Cooper are the ones who call the shots, the women are often the ones pulling the strings. How was the business world changing for women in the 1960s?
You have this very interesting moment right before the women’s liberation movement. What that means is that these women, who are established in the workforce in their mid-30s, are going to get really angry. What was happening in ’61, ’62 was that men were now established back at home, but there was that taste in the air of what women’s complete independence felt like during the war. As you have women entering the workforce, the expectations all get a little scrambled. Once women have access to money, to wages, and to consumer power, what leverage do men have at that point? I think what happened was the population advanced way quicker than the culture was ready to adapt. That’s why you get a sexual revolution, that’s why you get rebellion. You are still kind of existing under an Eisenhower patriarchy, which does not work when you have women in the workforce who have spending power and want to get laid and have the pill.
Season four will most likely place the men and women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in the fall of 1964. What can we expect to see happen to the cultural and business landscape of America in the coming season?
One of the big things that happened at the beginning of that year was that the surgeon general came out and said that smoking is bad for you, which had never been said by the government. Then the Federal Trade Commission comes out and says, during the summer, that there needs to be a warning on every pack. Seeing as how Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s one big account is Lucky Strike, I think that’s going to cause some trouble for them. They’ll have to come up with a whole other ideology to effectively market cigarettes. Also, by 1964 Beatlemania is in full tilt—rock and roll has landed! I think if they’re smart, [characters like] Pete Campbell or Peggy will say that it will be financially lucrative to start selling lunchboxes instead of cigarettes, because if there’s anything we know now, it’s that the tween market is not to be underestimated.