'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.