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Only Don Draper can save us Today's ad men are struggling to sell capitalism

'Get Don Draper out of retirement.' Credit: Mad Men

'Get Don Draper out of retirement.' Credit: Mad Men


December 18, 2023   5 mins

The final episode of Mad Men sees Don Draper in personal and professional crisis. Washed up in a West Coast spiritual retreat, the titan of Madison Avenue has dissolved into a blubbery mess. He takes a meditation class on a cliff overlooking the sea. “Om,” the group intones, and Draper’s lips curl into a faint smile. We cut to the last scene of the series, a real-life 1971 advert for Coca-Cola in which a multi-ethnic group of teenagers, assembled on an Italian hillside, sing about buying the world a Coke to usher in global harmony.

The most common interpretation is that the ad is meant to be Draper’s: he co-opts the hippie spirit he encounters to sell a surgery drink. Similarly, the torrent of creativity in Sixties American advertising, as dramatised in Mad Men’s preceding episodes, is usually seen as a more-or-less cynical appropriation of the burgeoning counterculture for commercial ends. But it might not be. The Conquest of Cool, a 1997 book by Thomas Frank, co-founder of The Baffler, makes the case that the liberal revolution came from within the business world as much as outside it. Capitalists embraced “hip”, long-haired dope smokers because they recognised them as fellow fighters against conformity. “Hip,” he says, “became central to the way American capitalism understood itself and explained itself to the public.” This deep identification with hip has persisted, and is the ultimate reason why modern multinationals insist, however implausibly, on branding themselves as progressive revolutionaries.

Fifties America is looked back on as a black-and-white decade: office workers in grey flannel suits commuting, in gas-guzzling, chrome-slathered cars, between hierarchical offices and square suburban homes. And the people who lived it knew it. “By the middle of the Fifties,” says Frank, “talk of conformity, of consumerism, and of the banality of mass-produced culture were routine elements of middle-class American life.”

Advertising exemplified the Fifties funk. In big Madison Avenue agencies, rote formulas were preferred over creativity. Copywriters would work in separate rooms to art directors, sending their text over in pneumatic chutes for illustration. Their output addressed consumers as if they were small children, or disobedient dogs: “You can have a lovelier complexion in 14 days with Palmolive soap, doctors prove!” or “Fast! Fast! Fast relief!” from Anacin aspirin. Detroit’s big three carmakers, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, hawked their latest models by naming them things like “Starfire” or giving them space-age doodahs such as “Jet-Trail Tail Lamps”.

Then everything changed. Doyle Dane Bernbach’s adverts for the Volkswagen Beetle, beginning in 1959, “invented what we might call anti advertising: a style which harnessed public mistrust of consumerism [
] to consumerism itself”. They were clean, eye-catching and intelligent. They didn’t talk down to their audience but shared a joke with them — a joke that was usually on other car companies. A tiny photo of the Beetle, an acre of white space, and the slogan “Think Small” — this vehicle would save petrol and get through fewer tyres, because it didn’t have the cruise-ship proportions beloved by domestic brands. Another ad had a picture of the car with the caption: “The ’51 ’52 ’53 ’54 ’55 ’56 ’57 ’58 ’59 ’60 ’61 Volkswagen.” No planned obsolescence from these trusty Teutonic engineers.

By the end of the Sixties, pretty much the entirety of Madison Avenue was converted to the ways of DDB. Clients were toured around agencies’ creative apartments to see the blue jeans and miniskirts of the young staff. The long hippie hair of industry stars was discussed as if it bestowed Samson-like strength in selling. Andrew Kershaw, president of Ogilvy & Mather, insisted in 1970 that he had been a Beatles fan “since before the time they became famous”.

This spirit suffused their output too. Every brand became anti-establishment. “Join the Tool Revolution!” declared the radical wrench-makers at Vaco. Clairol cosmetics announced “The Great Beige-In!” to commemorate the launch of “three psychedelicious beiges frosted for lips and nails”. Oldsmobile started calling their cars “Youngsmobile”. These were not just clumsy pitches at young consumers: by Frank’s reckoning, at least half of all ads in the mid-market magazines Life and Ladies’ Home Journal were “hip” between 1965 and 1970. “Madison Avenue,” he says, “was more interested in speaking like the rebel young than in speaking to them.” Ironically, given the frugal message of DDB’s original VW ads, hip became the perfect way to stimulate consumerism: valorising the young, the cool and the new leads people to buy more stuff, more often.

Contemporary reviews of Frank’s book complained that he was too hard on the hippies, conflating the Leftist politics of the counterculture with the business-friendly fashions and tastes of youth culture in general. But was it really such a reach? In 1964, five years after its first VW ad, DDB produced a commercial for Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign: a girl picking, and counting, the petals of a daisy, which morphs into the countdown for a nuclear explosion. It helped Johnson convince the country that his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, was a war-mongering maniac. The election was a Democrat landslide.

In truth, Goldwater would have fitted right in at DDB. When he accepted the Republican nomination for president, he declared his cause was “to free our people” from suffocating big government and promote “diversity” and “creativity”. Though he lost, he laid the foundation for Ronald Reagan’s libertarian, New Deal-busting brand of republicanism. In The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order, the historian Gary Gerstle argues that the “neoliberal order” became hegemonic because it offered something for everyone: intoxicating social freedoms for the Left and economic liberalisation for the Right. Hip consumerism wasn’t an oxymoron, but ruthlessly coherent.

Madison Avenue could never declare its revolution won. The charismatic outlaw stuck around, for there were always new things for him to sell to a public that continued to revere him. “We believe in the rebel Sixties,” Frank says, “in the uprising against the humourless ‘establishment’, like we believe in World War II as ‘the good war’.” Such a semi-mystical treatment of the young has continued, too. Writing in 1997, Frank observes the Sixties trope of Boomers being “cynical and savvy about advertising” re-enacted “almost mechanically” about Gen X, who according to one New York Times report had been hardened by “excessive exposure to glad handing salesmanship early in life”. Combing through modern marketing reports on Gen Z throws up the same kind of stuff: “avoid going straight for the sell”, “put values first”, and “speak their language”. A line in a 2018 McKinsey article could be lifted from the lips of Sixties ad man: Gen Z’s “search for authenticity generates greater freedom of expression and greater openness to understanding different kinds of people”.

In 2017, Pepsi released a very bad ad. Kendall Jenner, who has abandoned a modelling shoot to march with diverse protesters carrying generic signs such as “join the conversation”, hands a police officer a can of Pepsi in some supposed moment of anti-establishment subversion. Earlier, a photographer in a hijab scrunches up her work in frustration, then joins the pro-conversation demonstrators as they pass by. Her eyes light up when Kendall whips out her anti-fascist Pepsi: finally, something authentic to capture!

This kind of message was nothing new for the perennially second-placed soda brand: in the Sixties, it used hip consumerism to try to differentiate itself from Coca-Cola, then an icon of the conservative capitalist establishment. Campaigns for the “Pepsi Generation” showed young people riding motorbikes, or amphibious cars. An ad depicting surfers describes them as “Board members of the Pepsi Generation”. They were held in such high esteem by their creators that one ad man later confessed his guilt about soft drink-fuelled generational conflict: he felt they “contributed to some of the rebelliousness that was going on within the country”. The 2017 commercial, however, was criticised so heavily it was pulled a day after release.

In 1997, Frank could talk about the contradiction of a market-based society that required you to behave at work, but ritually transgress when spending your wages. “Hip and square are now permanently locked together,” he says, “in a self-perpetuating pageant of workplace deference and advertising outrage.” Things feel different a quarter-century later. Though ad agencies still style their campaigns as revolutions, socially progressive causes are accepted to the point where ads such as Pepsi’s 2017 opus can’t even plausibly pretend to shock us. Instead, they veer towards the patronising tone of the Fifties: for a British example, see this summer’s “Maaate” anti-misogyny campaign from Transport for London. Hip has become square. But if hip is how American capitalism understands and explains itself, then its impotency spells trouble. The very first thing the system must be able to sell is itself. Someone get Don Draper out of retirement.


Josiah Gogarty is assistant editor at The Knowledge, an email news digest, and a freelance writer elsewhere.

josiahgogarty

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Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
7 months ago

What I usually see in ads are completely unbelievable depictions of society – every couple is mixed race, about half are same-sex, and there is more focus on signaling fealty to the diversity gods than on promoting any product.

David Kerr
David Kerr
7 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

As a former producer of TV commercials I can recall that what all one saw in ads were exclusively white people in heteronormative situations. Trying to cast a person of colour, a disabled person, a dwarf or a queer individual was nigh on impossible. So I guess that what you are saying is that you would like us to return to the dark days of advertising where the multi cultural society we have lived in for decades was simply denied by the advertising industry. Tragic.

Rob N
Rob N
7 months ago
Reply to  David Kerr

It may be getting ‘multicultural’ quickly but most ethnic Brits (and many newcomers) wish it wasn’t.

And I certainly don’t want social engineering in ads, exemplified by the ASA’s code change a few years ago.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Rob N

“most ethnic Brits”
Nah. Just the racist ones.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
7 months ago
Reply to  David Kerr

Ah, that probably explains why I no longer watch commercials.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Because you are a racist? Yes, we already knew that…

Kenda Grant
Kenda Grant
7 months ago
Reply to  David Kerr

It appears companies are now required to follow a DEI checklist, to hire and to sell. If they can get something in about climate in their ad, even better. I’ll believe these ads aren’t just virtual signalling when I see a hijab wearing muslim women with a Sikh husband or two gay muslim men. Of course, these ads wouldn’t last long. Unlike the white population, terrified at being called racist and therefore afraid to call BS, you’d quickly hear from the Muslim and Sikh communities. In the end, one doesn’t have to go far outside ones door to see advertisements depiction of diversity doesn’t reflect reality. Oh, and David, immediately using an ad hominem attack is almost as lame as the ads we see.

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
7 months ago
Reply to  Kenda Grant

There IS a DEI checklist: Bloomberg reports that of corporate hires in 2021, 94% went to People of Color. (How could this have been just random?) Well-chosen hypotheticals, Muslim/Sikh, gay Muslim couple. Spot on about the ad hominem, too.

Stuart Bennett
Stuart Bennett
7 months ago

It’s another example of people disappearing up their own backsides and forgetting/ignoring what human nature really is. Aspiration is vanishing (in advertising as in individuals) in favour of a clawing need to be viewed as special right now, rather than setting out achieve something to deserve it first.

Matt M
Matt M
7 months ago

I see almost no adverts day to day so it must be very hard for advertisers to get through to people like me.
I don’t watch TV. I pay for all the media I consume, none of which comes with advertisements. I avoid social media like the plague. I pay for the ad-free version of YouTube and ignore the recommended videos. I work from home so I’m not on the Tube or train everyday staring at ads.
Whenever I do see TV adverts (for instance on TV at someone else’s house), I am shocked by them – the general mawkishness, the ugliness and/or ethnicity of the actors and actresses, the woke message. It has changed a lot since the days of Carling Black Label.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

You are shocked by the ethnicity of the actors in adverts?
What part of that, exactly, is shocking to you?

Carl Valentine
Carl Valentine
7 months ago

Maybe he means that BAME people are over represented in adverts, which is undoubtedly true..

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Carl Valentine

Over represented by what metric? Is there some requirement that adverts need their actors to align exactly with the national proportions of each racial background?
Even if BAME people are over represented, why would that be shocking to anyone? Is the appearance in an advert of someone who looks a bit different to you so terrifying?

Stuart Bennett
Stuart Bennett
7 months ago

R u ok hun?

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Stuart Bennett

Tip top, sonny!

0 0
0 0
7 months ago

This study done in 2019 by Channel 4 shows a metric that might answer your question. Black people made up 3% of the population and featured in 37% of ads.
Quite a metric, don’t you think?
https://www.isba.org.uk/system/files/media/documents/2020-12/c4-study-mirror-on-the-industry.pdf

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  0 0

So what?
Does the appearance of black people on tv upset you so much?

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
7 months ago

I can’t possibly reckon 00’s ethnicity but suppose the same point was stated by someone Black. (Who, presumably, would not be upset by Black people on TV.) What then?

Bo Komonytsky
Bo Komonytsky
7 months ago

Cut out the “champagne” and go back to consuming Pepsi. The “champagne” has obviously gone to your head. BTW, is your hair color “champagne” and are part of the “Q-tip” generation?

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
7 months ago

“Is there some requirement that adverts need their actors to align exactly with the national proportions of each racial background?” Well, there is a great hue and cry when groups are underrepresented relative to their demographic strength.

Matt M
Matt M
7 months ago

They used to be 90% white people, now (13 years after I stopped watching telly) they seem to be 90% non-white. Yet the country is still 90% white. It is very odd.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

Very obviously not 90% non-white! I think you are seeing what you want to see, old boy!
Even if it was, so what? Does the appearance of non-white people on television “shock” you so much? Why?

Matt M
Matt M
7 months ago

That’s the wrong question. The right one is why are advertisers following strategies that annoy the very people to whom they are trying to sell?

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

Why would you be annoyed by the appearance in adverts of people who don’t look exactly like you?

Matt M
Matt M
7 months ago

Gosh! You are so cool.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

Why can’t you answer the question?
Why does the appearance of black people in adverts “shock” you so much?

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
7 months ago

Who looks EXACTLY like me? (Oh, yeah, they all look exactly alike . . . )

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
7 months ago

Loved this. I was born in the late 50s and grew up with the creative ads through the 60s (remember booze and cigarette spots on TV?, the “Woody Allen” stomach talking to its therapist?), before majoring in advertising during the 70s. I worked in advertising for the first 20 years of my professional life.
I watch little TV now, but what ads I do see are cringe-inducing embarrassments. The clever people have long since gone and socially terrified, barely literate, AI-dependent submediocrities have filled the chasm.

Last edited 7 months ago by Allison Barrows
Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago

” I worked in advertising for the first 20 years of my professional life.”
This is plainly not true.

Bo Komonytsky
Bo Komonytsky
7 months ago

Judging by your un-professional, caustic, sarcastic and trite comments, your 20 years of professional employment in “add advertising must have been spent in janitorial services.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Bo Komonytsky

Thanks for joining the group, Bo, but you may wish to complete your remedial reading course before jumping right in and making a complete fool of yourself!
Otherwise, great work!

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
7 months ago

What happened in 1965 that might explain Madison Avenue’s sudden awareness of hip? The first of the Baby Boomers turned 20 and started spending their own money.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
7 months ago

Killer fact! My last “surgery” drink was a Coke.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
7 months ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

Kool Aid for the trans generation.

E Wyatt
E Wyatt
7 months ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

It’s time they stopped selling it in hospitals and health centres!

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
7 months ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

Surely the only surgery drink worthy of the name is Dr. Pepper.

Georgivs Novicianvs
Georgivs Novicianvs
7 months ago

Hip sells. That’s it. That’s all there is to it.

jane baker
jane baker
7 months ago

Since I tossed my TV out the window (from 10 floors up) I’m so happy not to endure TV ads. At least on YouTube you can skip them. It’s true that by the mid 1980s our British TV ads had got very sophisticated and more social commentary than product placement.
Some were charming. Some were funny,witty and on point about some sort of contemporary social phenomenon in the guise.of promoting a product. Happy Days. The ads I object to these days (in my head ) are food ads. They really annoy me. In a bad tempered unreasonable sort of way. It’s the gregarious jollity of them.
Whatever food item is the subject,be it oven chips,chicken portions,slices of bread,pots of yoghurt etc,the people consuming it with relish are always a large diverse,multi cultural,mixed age family all stuffed around a huge table that fills a kitchen so there is barely space to walk round it. The table is covered with appetising food items and this rainbow family are animatedly shoving it down their gobs while maintaining eye contact,grinning and laughing and all expressing familial love. Actually whats not to like about any of that imagery? It’s unpleasant and unreasonable of me to find it annoying,but I do.