What does Mad Men tell us about business? Our first thought is that it doesn’t tell us much about business in general or advertising. Rather it tells us what people who write television screenplays think about the folks who pay the bills. It’s obvious that they regard the ad men as deeply conflicted people who wish to be artists but are pulled too much by money to stay pure.
There are all sorts of ironies in that view, especially presenting the venality of advertising in the days of advertising’s decline. Are we supposed to regret the passing of ad campaigns in the age of search term buying? And what about the revival, especially at Gawker.com, of creativity in online advertising?
Law professor Larry Ribstein points out one of the greatest ironies: that business people in general, and ad folks in particular, are focussed on others. Whereas many artists are massive egotists. To put it differently: ad guys are intellectually generous while artists are basically selfish.
My theory is based on film and doesn’t deal in detail with television or other art forms. But Mad Men has gotten me thinking about artists in general. In general, artists are allergic to business. But why? Isn’t there a kind of art in what businesspeople do?
My nascent theory is that artists are inclined to view business as not just different from but antithetical to what they do. Artists (at least modern artists) are into self-expression. In other words, they’re inherently selfish. Business people, on the other hand, are into selling. This means they have to discern other people’s wants and cater to them. Artists call that selling out.
Now, one might also call the business perspective the opposite of selfish – say, altruistic. Of course artists don’t see themselves that way. Modern artists – at least the sort that are inclined to write for television – are inclined toward Herbert Marcuse’s neo-Marxian view in One-Dimensional Man (1964) that business, rather than catering to people’s real needs, creates fake ones.
Which brings me to Mad Men. The show is set in the early 60s, just when Marcuse’s theories were coming into vogue. People were questioning the 50s consumer culture. There’s a scene that forces the main Mad Man (Don Draper) to deal with a bunch of Marcusian beatniks who challenge him to defend his life.
Most interesting (for me) are the scenes that show Draper doing his job. Draper’s artistic crew tend to have a pedestrian approach to selling – figure out what the consumer wants, and promote that. What makes Draper seem brilliant is that he’s always a step ahead: figure out what people want to want – that is, their dreams about themselves – and sell that. For example, to sell an airline, Draper’s guys figure that men fly, men like sex in the sky, so show them stewardesses’ short skirts. Draper says men want to think of themselves as family guys. So show the little girl asking, “what did you bring me daddy.” Draper sells Kodak’s Carousel the same way — as a device for showing a gauzy version of the lives men would like to think they’re living with their families.
Of course there’s some truth to this view of advertising, but is it really so bad? Advertising increases aggregate demand, so we’re all richer. Isn’t it great that somebody’s helping us figure out what to want? And Draper, at least, often shows us a better version of ourselves – sort of like religion.
But I suspect this isn’t the intended message. What we’re supposed to take away from this show – one of the most well-made and popular television shows that is really about business – is that business is about manipulation.
And of course there are policy implications. Given this “inside view” of what business is doing, shouldn’t we regulate it?
The irony, of course, is that Mad Men is selling us a dream – a dream about business.
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