Mad Men Musings: Changing Times

Posted by Rob Walker on September 17, 2008
Posted Under: America,Mad Men musings

On the off chance that anybody is wondering why I haven’t added to my Mad Men Musings series — I wrote about almost every episode of the series in its first season, and not once in its second — it’s mostly because the new season, to me, hasn’t really presented a lot of very interesting material related to commercial persuasion, past v. present. That material has faded into the background of plots I find less interesting (will Don’s wife figure out he’s cheating etc. etc.).

There’s one sort-of-kind-of exception to that, though. This is the subplot involving the hiring of “young” creatives, whose basic value to the agency is their hard-wired understanding of youth culture. There’s clearly a parallel to that going on in the commercial persuasion business today. Aside from experiments like the one the NYT wrote about yesterday (“pop up agency” of twentysomethings created within traditional agency), young people are frequently spoken of by marketers as though they are either members of a different species or, possibly, have arrived here from another planet. The idea is that unless you’re one of “them” you can never never really “get” what makes “them” tick. It’s a bit goofy. Not unlike the professional young people hired by the 1962 ad agency depicted on Mad Men. But there are, I think, some interesting differences.

Most notably, protagonist Don Draper doesn’t seem terrified of these young people and their mysterious ways, as today’s ad execs do; he seems to find them borderline ridiculous, if slightly useful. Somehow I’m not sure Draper would even bother with a tricked-out Facebook profile; he certainly wouldn’t make a spectacle of himself trying to pass himself off as a guy who “gets” the kids. What he “gets” is, in his mind, much bigger than that (and most certainly includes things the naive kids don’t understand in the least). That’s my read on his character anyway.

But of what’s interesting about this is that in the show it’s all happening in 1962. The Beatles haven’t even showed up yet. American culture is about to  be changed — largely by youth — in ways that will make it practically unrecognizable to a guy like Draper circa 1962. Think of what’s coming in the next five or ten years: From the riots and assassinations and protests to Woodstock and drug culture and the sexual revolution. I mean American really becomes a different place. If you showed a year-in-review film for 1969 to Don Draper in 1962, he would find it hard to believe.

Or maybe I’m exaggerating. (I didn’t live through the 1960s, so I can only surmise all of this.) Might we be on the brink of such changes now? Or has the youthy changequake of our time already happened? Or both?

One thing that’s distinguishes 2008 from 1962 is is that “big changes coming!” has been a loud and resounding mainstream mantra at least since Netscape’s IPO (which was thirteen years ago).  That’s more than a decade of magazine covers and books and gurus rattling on and on and with a message about change — a repetitious, monotonous message.

Google just turned 10, and it’s true that you can divide American life into pre- and post-Google eras. Is there more big change to come? I don’t know. I do know that the idea that more change is coming is not an outlier position — it’s the conventional wisdom. Blathering about change has long since become the new conformity. There is absolutely no safer point of view to hold.

Anyway, I can’t know what it was like to live through another era, only my own. (I’ve mused before about which 25-year stretch contained the most radical changes, that post and responses here.) But I do think it’s interesting to watch Draper’s total self confidence about The Way Things Work, even as a massive changebomb that he can’t really hear is ticking steadily in the background. If the show continues, it should be fascinating to see how he copes.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

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