TV: The Ad Men of 'Mad Men'

This week on "Mad Men": an American Airlines flight has crashed into Jamaica Bay just after takeoff. All 95 passengers are dead, but that doesn't stop the Sterling Cooper ad agency from engaging in a bit of gallows humor. One junior staffer says that because of the number of golfers onboard, the bay turned plaid. Another riffs on a new slogan for American: "Idlewild to Rockaway in less than eight minutes." And then (slight spoiler alert here) one young ad man learns that his own father was on the plane. He—we won't spoil it entirely by telling you which one—stumbles out of the office in a daze, only to find out when he returns the next day that the higher-ups now want to go after American for real—and they want him to lead the campaign to rehabilitate the airline's image after the crash. He says that would be inappropriate: "I haven't even cried yet." But viewers familiar with AMC's hit drama know that the normal constraints of decency rarely apply at Sterling Cooper. In the end, the young staffer not only shows up for the pitch to American, he uses his personal tragedy as a calling card.

The first season of "Mad Men" sought to simultaneously celebrate the creativity of advertising and reveal the underside of the American Dream. But this new season—with its stories of plane crashes and prostitution in the first two episodes alone—looks darker. "Mad Men" pointedly blurs the line between the way the characters sell their products and the way they sell themselves. The show is a period piece—at times self-consciously so—that traffics in our modern, dystopian view of America as a nation of sellouts. Balancing the vintage and the contemporary is all the more challenging given how different the world of advertising was in the "Mad Men" era from today. "Advertising back then was still largely visible as a blight on the landscape, a billboard or an annoying interruption of your favorite TV or radio programs," says Mark Crispin Miller, an NYU professor who is writing a history of the Marlboro Man campaign. "It's not that way anymore."

The notion of selling yourself hasn't always been linked to advertising. In the industry's early days, the focus was on logic. Earnestly worded, essay-length "reason why" ads carefully spelled out a product's benefits. By the era of "Mad Men," consumers had become sophisticated about marketers' methods—or so they thought. "Advertising doesn't work on me," a date boasts to Peggy in one episode. She snaps back that when advertising is good, people never think it works. In fact, advertisers have long exploited consumers' sense of themselves as insiders, says Miller. "People who work in advertising are smart enough to recognize that people like to think they are too clever to be taken in by commercials. So a lot of commercials goof on advertising," he says. "Mad Men" gives a nod to one of the most effective examples when the staff at Sterling Cooper passes around Volkswagen's celebrated "lemon" ads. The ads cheekily copped to producing the occasional bad product. "That campaign is famous for having an attitude that acknowledged consumers' skepticism," says Rob Walker, author of "Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between Who We Are and What We Buy." "It communicates that the audience is sophisticated enough to understand the language of advertising."

The 1960s, when the series is set, are known as a "golden age" of advertising because of the creativity in art and copy. But the period might just as well be called the age of polished brass, since the idea of truth in ads was just then giving way to primacy of emotional persuasion. Instead of touting a product's merits, advertisers in the '60s strove to evoke a feeling or philosophy—there's a good reason those Marlboro Man ads are considered to be the most successful campaign ever (and notice how everyone on "Mad Men" smokes, even though they're privy to some of the early studies on smoking and health). The stealth approach rules today, when ads sometimes don't even show the product, let alone spend paragraphs explaining why we should buy it. It's how we've arrived at the era of the viral ad video, which marketers post on the Web in hopes that it will take on a life of its own. Remember the Levi's clips featuring young men doing back flips into their jeans? The mystery around their origin—the brand is never mentioned—only fueled their popularity. "Images don't make claims," says Peggy Kreshel, a professor of advertising at the University of Georgia. "You can't argue with an image the same way you argue with a printed word."

Critics of "Mad Men" say that the show makes the job appear effortless, as though brilliant ad copy is the result of happy inspiration while playing with your kids or chatting with your waiter. "'Mad Men' makes creativity look like it is serendipitous. It's true that ad ideas come from anywhere, but it's not as easy as it looks," says Kreshel. But it's just this sense that any spontaneous sentiment or offhand remark can be put to use to sell a product that makes the show so insidious. In one of the signature scenes from the first "Mad Men" season, Kodak is looking for a campaign for its new slide projector "wheel." It wants to focus on the technology, but the head of creative understands that advertising has become about making an emotional connection with consumers. In the pitch meeting, he loads the wheel—which he's romantically renamed the "carousel"—with pictures of his wife and kids, essentially selling his family to win the account. In this week's episode, Peggy states the equation more bluntly. When a guy she meets at a party asks her to go home with him, she says: "I'm in the persuasion business, and frankly I'm disappointed by your presentation." The power of advertising doesn't get more personal, or painful, than that.