“Mad Men” Musings

Posted by Rob Walker on July 30, 2007
Posted Under: Entertainment,Mad Men musings,Reviews,Uncategorized

In one of the handful of scenes in the second episode of Mad Men that was explicitly about advertising, main character Don listens to the ideas his creative team has come up with to sell an exciting new product: Right Guard, in an aerosol can.

The ideas turn on the excitement of this new technology, which the creative gang says ought to be linked to, you know, rockets, and the exciting future. (The assignment is a clever choice by the show’s writers, given that aerosol cans, which no doubt really were seen as a breakthrough at the time, were eventually demonized as an environmental menace.) Don says this approach is all wrong, because plenty of people fear the future, and because while the product is for men, it will be bought by women, and the rocketships & progress approach won’t work for them.

Put aside whether these observations are original, or even true. Instead consider the way Don arrives at them: it’s an instinct, a hunch, a feeling in his presumably golden gut. He’s pushing away the triumph-of-science approach on a meta level, as well as a practical one. Consider as well one of the show’s running plots, which is that Don essentially splits his time between his wife and kids in Conformist Oaks, or whatever suburb they live in, and his Greenwich Village bohemian mistress. The wife is coiffed, conventional, and possibly losing her mind. The mistress is ironic, unconventional, and willing to throw a television set out a window. Which of these worlds is Don really a part of? Is he an artist, or an executive?

This strikes me as one of the eternal issues for ad professionals. I don’t mean the long debate over whether advertising is an art or a science, I mean in terms of the ad pros’ self-image. To this day, no profession is more insistent about using the word “creative.” Yet mixed feelings about the precise nature, purpose and value of that creativity have been around a very long time. Most any novel or movie set in an ad agency includes one or more characters trying to make something creative with no client or commercial taint — like writing a novel or screenplay (about an ad agency, perhaps?).

The hero of Dreiser’s 1915 novel, The “Genius”, might be the first example of wrestling with these issues by way of a fictional character: Eugene Witla’s promising art career falls apart, but he has a knack for ad-making. (Ads “must not only attract the eye, but fix themselves in the memory, and conveyu a fact which was or at least could be made to seem important to the reader.” It was a matter of “human psychology.”) “My poor old art!” Eugene moans at one point, but he hardly seems to mean it, explaining to his wife how much better the money is in the advertising and publishing world: “I can’t live by painting pictures.”

Don, meanwhile, has his big epiphany about how to sell Right Guard while lolling in bed at his boho girlfriend’s pad. It arrives in an artist-like burst of inspiration. On the other hand, the real nature of the epiphany is the same thing Eugene Witla figured advertising was all about: human psychology. More to the point, it’s an epiphany about way to sell Right Guard. What kind of thing is that for an artist to be doing?

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

Reader Comments

The issue of ad guys pulling-inspiration-from-thin-air (or wherever) makes me think of the Bruce Nussbaum column you tagged on del.icio.us. Don doesn’t fuss with research or the consumer experience. He goes with his gut, which is mostly what he knows — quite like today’s 20- and 30-somethings who direct all their clients to MySpace.

As for Don’s psychology: I guess at some point he has noticed that he’s being paid piles of money to think up concepts like “it gives you an excuse to get closer” and put in at most an hour’s worth of work in a day. Maybe calling what he does “creative” makes it seem more special, to justify the paychecks.

Written By Cindy on July 30th, 2007 @ 11:17 am

That sounds right — the bit about justifying the paychecks.

Written By murketing on July 31st, 2007 @ 11:54 am
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