[Editor's Note: This article is a part of ADText.]
What is it about the advertising/marketing business that makes people who work in it so irresistible to folks writing screenplays.... The ways ad folk are deployed in movies and television shows would leave a person baffled. Look more closely, and it just seems weird. One of the toughest aspects of this question is figuring out what these people do—more specifically than "working in advertising."
The few movies that have actually depended on advertising qua advertising for their plots have been unkind to it, mostly.... There are light, joshing jabs at advertising—Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (1967) come to mind—and there is satire, as in How To Get Ahead In Advertising (1989) and Putney Swope (1969).1
Hollywood's fascination with advertising—whatever the industry's successes or faults—seems to have left an indelible mark on the American psyche. The industry itself is rather small, say, in comparison to sports, news reporting, and finance. Few people actually know anyone who works in advertising. Yet, advertising looms large in Hollywood films and TV shows. It is from these representations that the public gets nearly all of its information about the business of advertising and the people who work in it.
Moreover, Hollywood seems to have established a formula for this representation—a formula that goes back at least to the 1940s and has been rather endlessly recycled, more or less intact, into the 2000s. What is more, the public has little means to assess the verisimilitude of this representation against the reality of the industry itself. Where else would one get a look "inside" the world of advertising except in such popular cultural venues?
See a list of Hollywood films dealing with advertising elsewhere in ADText.
In this unit, Hollywood's formulaic representation is considered through the examination of three pivotal films—The Hucksters (1947), Putney Swope (1969), and Crazy People (1990)—and the popular TV series Mad Men (2007-present). Although these productions have enjoyed varying degrees of commercial success—and thus, opportunities for impacting public opinion about advertising—there are many more with essentially similar stories to tell about this reified world and the machinations of its influences upon us. Their cumulative impact on public attitudes about advertising must not be underestimated.
2. The Hucksters (1947)
The more you irritated them with repetitious commercials the more soap they bought.... The announcer reminded him of the hucksters who used to shout their vegetables in the streets of Fort Madison. Huckster—that was a good name for an advertising man. A high class huckster who had a station wagon instead of a pushcart.—Frederic Wakeman, The Hucksters (1946)2
The epithet huckster used in reference to those working in advertising owes its origins to Frederic Wakeman's best-selling novel, The Hucksters (1946), and the film version by the same name (1947). Although huckster had been around for some time to refer to peddlers, hawkers, and others who sell wares and provisions in the streets, often using aggressive, showy, or devious methods, it was Wakeman who first extended it to advertising.
The significance of both the novel and the film lies in their importance as social documents and mechanisms for galvanizing and shaping public opinion about the advertising profession. Wakeman's story of work and life on postwar Madison Avenue was not the only critique of advertising in America, but it was certainly one of the most influential. Noticed by both the public and the industry, The Hucksters provided an exposé of a profession whose very job it was to manage impressions of its own role in society as well as those of its clients and its clients' products.
The plots of book and film differ only slightly. The central character, Victor Norman, decides to leave the military after the war and lucks into a high-paying job in an important Madison Avenue agency. He struggles with the seemingly inevitable conflict between his own sense of moral right and what he is called upon to do in the promotion of his clients' products.3 In the end, Norman follows his own sense of morality by leaving the world of advertising. As the story unfolds, the reader/viewer is given an eye-opening account of the world of advertising.
Wakeman's advertising world is dominated by radio. Television was only just making its commercial debut in the late 1940s and these were unsettled times for advertising and broadcasting. Both industries hoped to limit government control over television (as they had largely managed to do with radio) and FM radio, also emerging at that time as a potential commercial medium. Neither welcomed Wakeman's hard-hitting critique nor the "insistent criticisms" of others who asserted that radio largely served commercial interests while ignoring public ones.4
Although diverse critics of broadcasting agreed that radio could be improved, they offered differing reasons for what they considered its sorry state. They variously blamed it on radio's need to address the largest common denominator; the poor quality of public taste in programming; the way radio scrupulously avoided minority voices, diverse viewpoints, and controversial subjects; repetitious programming based on established formulas; and over-reliance by advertisers and sponsors on quantitative measures of program success.5
The broadcasting industry's defense of radio is perhaps best summed up in the words of Victor Ratner, a CBS vice president: "Radio's made in the image of the American people. To criticize it is to criticize the American people and is therefore 'un-American'!"6
Whatever else can be said about it, The Hucksters clearly stirred up the hornets' nest.7 It was followed in short order by many other works of fiction and nonfiction that extended the debates. These include: Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1955), Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders (1957), and David Ogilvy's Confessions of an Advertising Man (1963).
Two clips from the film illustrate Wakeman's severe judgments against the advertising industry. The first is a pivotal scene in which Victor Norman meets the client for whom he will be working. Based on the real life character of George Washington Hill (American Tobacco Company), Evan Llewellyn Evans represents the dictatorial, bombastic, and uninformed demands placed on admen by their clients. Norman dares to disagree with Evans, but Evans bows to his creativity and puts him to work.
The second clip shows Norman in the throes of a moral crisis: should he continue in advertising, or follow a more honorable profession? Kay Dorrance, his lady love, counsels him to sell only things he believes in or perhaps to give it all up and move to an island in the South Pacific.
A search of library and Internet resources reveals little about the advertising industry's direct response to The Huckster in the late 1940s. However, this period was one in which industry leaders were attempting to combat the public's growing distaste for advertising's excesses and an increased distrust of advertising itself. Thus, Wakeman's depiction of advertising did not stand alone as a critique of mid-century American advertising. Nor could it have taken the industry by surprise.
Prior to the onset of World War II, the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) and the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) had met at the Greenbrier in Hot Springs, Virginia in 1941 to discuss the anti-business and anti-advertising atmosphere that had developed in America during the Roosevelt years. James Webb Young of the J. Walter Thompson agency in New York, in addressing the group, called on them to make efforts to improve the public face of advertising by refining advertising techniques and undertaking pro bono social programs. He pointed out that John D. Rockefeller, first known as a robber baron, gained greater public standing after becoming a generous philanthropist. Webb suggested that advertising needed to take a lesson from Rockefeller.
The Hot Springs meeting ended with several resolutions affirming Young's analysis. Specifically, the assembled executives agreed that "advertising is an important part of American business—that attacks on advertising are attacks on business. [Therefore] the best defense consists of (a) better taste in copy and commercial, (b) dissemination of facts on the function and effects of advertising, [and] (c) re-teaching a belief in a dynamic economy." They also agreed to use "the skills and facilities of advertising for information and persuasion in other than commercial ventures, and specifically in the public interest."9
Many indirect indicators hint at the industry's response to its negative portrayal in the book and the film. For example, the following story appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 1953:
Hollywood Ad Club Drops Term Huckster
The Hollywood Advertising Club buried the term "huckster" yesterday. It abandoned the word as the name of its official magazine and announced that the publication will henceforth be known as Hollywood Grapevine. In announcing the change Harlan Palmer, club president, said the board of directors concluded that the use of the word by an advertising club "as well recognized as the Hollywood Ad Club gives to 'huckster' a prestige that it does not deserve. By some people," he continued, "the term 'huckster' has been applied to the advertising profession just as the word 'quack' and 'shyster' have been applied to the medical and legal professions."10
A New York Times article in 1947, questioning the potential influence of a film like The Hucksters, suspected that its greatest impact would be upon the "the sensibilities of a few advertising executives (who are not supposed to have them anyway)."11 The Washington Post, in an article entitled "Hollywood Now About Ready to Make Up for 'the Hucksters." (also from 1947), wrote: "Radio people can now raise their chins from that fourth vest button they've been parked on since The Hucksters fried 'em in oil."12
The most penetrating assessment of the film's impact is the New York Times review appearing in conjunction with the videotape release in 1991. Reviewer John McDonough, who had previously worked in advertising, called it "the best movie ever made about advertising." He wrote:
For years ad agencies have manufactured images for their clients. But over the years a few images about the agencies have leaked out too. Little wonder. What other business has in its ranks such a fifth column of potential novelists and screenwriters?
The movies actually came late to Madison Avenue. The power of the media in general over mass opinion had already gotten some early jaundiced looks from Ben Hecht (The Front Page, Nothing Sacred) and Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe). But ad agencies had got off easily. Then came The Hucksters. Part exposé, part satire, it was based on the 1946 best seller by former Foote Cone & Belding insider Frederic Wakeman. It had devastating credibility…. In many ways, The Hucksters remains a seminal work. Its cast of petty tyrants and jittery sycophants, of wiseacre cynics and brainwashed company men, defined the public profile of Madison Avenue. It became the matrix for most of the ad-agency fiction that followed, right on down through Network and Nothing in Common…. It would be wrong to dismiss The Hucksters as just another cheap shot at ad agencies. Its theme goes much deeper than that. The Hucksters was one of the first popular novels to tap into a post-New Deal, postwar skepticism over the individual's relationship to the corporation. In the '30s, corporate melodrama had been a class-against-class affair, with the company as the villainous robber baron. After the war, though, it turned introspective. Critics began suggesting that the group values of the corporation threatened the personal sovereignty of the individual….The corporate credo was clear: Fail within the system and you'll still be well taken care of; succeed outside of it, though, and you have no future here.... The stifled corporate individual quickly became a dominant theme in fiction (The Fountainhead, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit), movies (Patterns, The Apartment), social science (The Organization Man, The Lonely Crowd, White Collar) and even music (Little Boxes). It still is, although the locations have moved downtown lately (Wall Street).13
What Wakeman's book and Hollywood's film seem to have done was to capture the sparks of public distrust of advertising and stoke them. Like any work of art, The Hucksters succeeded only because it resonated with the culture that produced it. What could not be known at the time was the degree to which its portrayal of advertising would establish a paradigm that would reign into the present and serve to inform the public about the supposed inner workings of advertising.
3. Putney Swope (1969)
Director Robert Downey (father of the actor) assembled a cast of unknowns to fashion one of the great underappreciated satires of modern American consumer culture, leaving in its wake no sacred cows unbutchered.—Edward Burch
Q: Are you saying that everyone is equally rotten and on the take?—Robert Downey, Sr.
Despite a somewhat wishy-washy plot, the premise of Putney Swope is unmistakably clear: The unthinkable happens—a Black man is (accidentally) elected chairman of a big-time Madison Avenue advertising agency. It only happens because the members of the board—each wishing to vote for himself but prohibited by by-laws from doing so—select the token African American among them. This middle-aged Uncle Tom (Putney Swope) whom no one expected to win, when given real power, dismisses all but one of the white employees and changes the name of the agency to Truth and Soul. The film proceeds from there as a simultaneous critique of racism and consumerism in America.
Putney Swope may have had its greatest influence on influence leaders themselves. Its audiences were not so much members of the general public—many of whom walked out, avoided it altogether, or labeled it "disgusting"—as they were the avant garde, film buffs, and intellectuals. Rather than being brushed off as just another Hollywood tirade, these audiences took Downey's critique seriously.
Along with Jane Fonda [who declared it a masterpiece on The Tonight Show in 1969], perhaps the movie's biggest help came from Vincent Canby of The New York Times, but more importantly from a reviewer at The New York Daily News, whose anti-encomium now adorns the US DVD reissue. She hated it. "Vicious and vile. The most offensive picture I've ever seen." That put it on the map in an even bigger way, according to the director.14
The film swipes at both the advertising industry and the sort of people who work in it. Advertising itself is corrupt because it encourages excessive consumption, promises things that products cannot deliver, and tells half-truths as well as outright lies. The admen (for they are indeed mostly admen) are corrupt to the person. They lack morals, integrity, and their only loyalty is to the accounts they service. The entire enterprise—according to Downey—is smoke and mirrors, and fluff.
The establishing scenes introduce motivational researcher Dr. Alvin Weasely who comes to address the agency on the subject of why men drink beer. The audience sees immediately that the emperor is naked, but the admen bow and scrape, albeit mumbling and grumbling along the way.
Although at first Chairman Swope is a breath of fresh air—telling the truth, delivering on promises, shifting power relations, and abandoning tired old ways of delivering commercial messages—it is not long before he too, and those he has hired, are corrupted as well. Downey's message is that the system itself is rotten and a change of personnel—no matter how refreshing—cannot and will not change what is wrong with capitalism and its mouthpiece, advertising.
The film criticizes and insults nearly everyone along the way. There are jokes about Jews, Blacks, Asians, etc., but Downey, like a court jester, delivers bitter messages through them. In the short clip below, the culture's view of masculinity, homosexuality, and violence are laid bare.
Downey does not examine racism and advertising separately but rather as they are intertwined. It is the typical absence of African Americans in Madison Avenue jobs at the time that makes the film work. However, the racism/advertising entanglement is present in Truth and Soul's campaigns. There are several spoof commercials in the film (all presented in color as opposed to the narrative which is in black and white—read, Black and White). One of the most shocking and therefore most memorable is for Face Off Pimple Cream. As in the previous clip, racial tensions and taboos are baldly exposed.
Viewed today, Putney Swope is clearly a period piece. In 1969, it made many of the top 10 film lists. Then it largely disappeared except for late night television and special screenings. When it reappeared on DVD in 2006 it made something of a comeback. It continues to be recognized by many as an important social critique from the late 1960s. It has found other uses as well. In 1999, M. Colleen Jones, an educator and consultant specializing in organizational behavior, used it at a national conference on "People of Color in Predominantly White Institutions" to discuss what happens when African Americans actually are in institutional positions of power. More recently, it was screened at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (Harlem, NY) in 2009, and at a Robert Downey Sr. retrospective in 2011 (Austin, TX). At least one blogger used Putney Swope to ponder whether Barack Obama, if elected, would dismiss all the white people in high government positions and replace them with his own kind.18
In marked contrast to the public reception of the film, the advertising industry seemed to ignore it.20 Here is how one journalist described the advertising industry's response to Putney Swope:
Zilch.... [He goes on to quote Downey:] "There was a guy at a college where I took the movie to show to students, and at the end he came up to me. He had on a bow-tie and he said, 'MISTER Downey,' both of which had me frightened already, and he said, 'I want to thank you for getting me into advertising!. And that's when I knew I knew absolutely nothing."21
Although Putney Swope is on the surface a very different story about advertising from The Hucksters, the essential "truths" about the nature of advertising and advertising people are remarkably similar. Greed, deception, amorality, brown-nosing, back-biting—all rear their ugly heads again.
4. Crazy People (1990)
The 1990 film Crazy People does not look kindly at the world of advertising either. Indeed, it turns the whole idea of advertising on its head by asking what would happen if ads actually told the truth about the products they promote. It's an appealing, if absurdist, idea, but Crazy People asks its audience to suspend disbelief in order to imagine what things would be like under a new regime.
Once again, the plot is not heavy: a burned out adman, Emory Leeson, is admitted to a sanitarium, where he and other patients write truthful ads that actually work! Herein lies the critique of advertising. The fantasy that ads might actually tell the truth is possible only because we all accept the fact that real ads deceive us and never tell the real truth. The following clip contains the conversation between Leeson and his boss.
Once Leeson is institutionalized, his creative juices begin to flow again. He makes pals of other patients, falls in love with one of the dumber ones, and begins to produce ads rapidly. The ads are, of course, rejected back at the office, but they nonetheless manage to get printed. They are a runaway success. In the story, the public loves them because they actually tell the truth. In the theater, the audience loves them as well because they are funny and they are in on the joke—an airline with the slogan, Most of our passengers get there alive, and a fiber-loaded drink that warns, If you don't use it, you'll get cancer and die.
The shock value for the audience is increased by the fact that the "fake" ads in the film are for real brands—United Airlines, Metamucil, Quaker Oatmeal, Jaguar, and Sony. The film's producer did not bother asking these companies for permission to use their names because, as he says, "what we say about them is actually true." Thus, the audience is drawn more deeply into the fantasy, and thereby colludes in the understanding that real ads lie.
However, just as many critics saw Putney Swope as being as much about racism as it is about advertising, some others thought Crazy People was as much about mental illness as advertising. Mental health activists and those who have mentally ill people in their families did not take well to the film's portrayal, or ironically to the studio's ads for the movie.
The activists were protesting the advertising campaign mounted by Paramount Pictures, which they say stigmatizes the mentally ill and wrongly portrays them as dangerous. Ads for the movie, stripped across billboards and bus shelters, read: "Warning: Crazy People are Coming." ...
"As a defender of the First Amendment, it sickens me that people would use their right [to free speech] to hurt other people," said Councilman Angel L. Ortiz, who carried a placard that read, "Warning: Words Can Hurt."26
While some audiences may have laughed at the commercial parodies and at the joke that it is hard to tell craziness and advertising apart, the advertising industry generally scowled. A few insiders accepted the film as satire, but many more were uncomfortable with the story it told about their work, their careers, and their profession. Here is how one reporter described industry reaction:
Hollywood portrays them as wild and wacky characters in a world of their own. But do advertising people really work in ultra-cool offices? Do they all carry cell phones, have three-martini lunches and seek inspiration by shooting hoops and drumming on furniture? Well, yes and no.
I put the question to the staff of Calgary's Agency Group, who live by the creed "creativity in every office." I brought along movie clips from two Hollywood productions, Crazy People and Nothing in Common....
It was a hectic Thursday afternoon, but five staff members managed to show up—Steve Boyd, partner and creative director, Todd Sloane, also partner and creative director, Linda Bader, vice-president of media, Susan Dioszeghy, media planner, and Shannon Fox, associate creative director. They were all enthusiastic about my invitation to view some clips and share their thoughts.
First we watched several scenes from Crazy People, in which Dudley Moore plays a stressed-out creative director (note: none of the creatives at the Agency Group were so short) who, facing unrealistic deadlines and an ogre of a boss, loses his marbles. He complains vehemently that he lies for a living.
Struck by inspiration, he [the film character] actually starts telling the truth—a policy presented as anathema to advertising. He comes up with such deathless slogans as "Volvos—they're boxy but good" and "Visit New York, we had fewer murders last year." But in the real world, advertising just isn't done that way.
Boyd is first to comment on the "lying for a living" allegation. "I'm sure that's a perception out there but I think we bring out the good truths about a product or clients." Sloane adds that the agency's job is to find and promote a client's unique selling point.
Dioszeghy quickly points out that the movie's agency boss is especially unrealistic. He's depicted as unapproachable and a bully. "He seems like he checks out at five o.clock in the afternoon and expects magic when he leisurely strolls back in at 9:30 in the morning." Dioszeghy says that's simply not the case with her bosses. (Hmmm—I sense a raise here.)
After watching the part where Moore's character, Emery, finds his inspiration and types frantically into the night, Fox quickly identifies with the scene.
"There is that amazing feeling when you know you've got something really spectacular and the idea is 'cracked.. You run around the office sharing it with everyone." Boyd calls the cracking of an idea the "eureka moment" and Bader adds that everyone in the office gets excited.
When Emery is shipped off to a sanatorium he quickly gains a whole crew of aspiring agency wannabes. In one hilarious moment, he asks, "Who wants to be an ad guy?" Everyone raises a hand. When he asks "Who wants to be a firetruck?" the response is even more enthusiastic.
Chuckles spread around the Agency Group boardroom. "How many of you wanted to be an ad guy?" I ask.
Sloane did. While he was in high school some Alberta College of Art reps visited his school; he then discovered there was a whole industry behind the ads on TV. "I had no idea there was a career in it." He remembers seeing lots of cool stuff he could do in which he'd actually make money.
That's the problem with the movies we watched. Boyd even mentioned TV shows like Thirtysomething that portray the industry as having really cool offices, (sorry Boyd, but I thought your offices were way cool!) power lunches and lots of those infamous eureka moments. What's not portrayed is that behind every epiphany is an entire team of people toiling away—doing research, literature reviews, case study reviews and audience analysis, to name just some of the behind-the-scenes tasks.
"So much work goes into this so we can sit down and say 'Okay, now we know who we are talking to,'" Sloane explains. "And when the eureka moment comes, it is well-earned."
"Consumers see the result in movies," Boyd adds. "They see the eureka moment and see people throwing darts and what they don't see is all the intelligence that goes into it. The process is noteworthy and time-consuming."
Back at the adatorium—sorry, that's sanatorium—one of the movie "ad guys" jumps around excitedly on seeing a TV commercial. "That one's mine! That was mine!" he shouts. And in reality that's one of the many satisfactions of being in advertising. There's a sense of accomplishment in seeing the finished produc t on a 10-foot by 20-foot billboard. "I still send clippings to my 94-year-old grandmother in Winnipeg!" Boyd says.27
In general, movie reviewers were more critical than not. Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote: "Its upside-down ad campaigns wouldn't rate a smile in a college humor magazine."28 Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer described watching the film as "like watching an awful television program and looking forward to the commercials."29 Peter Rainer of the Los Angeles Times felt "the satiric idea behind Crazy People deserves a better movie."30
The advertising trade press was even more stringent in its criticism of Crazy People. Richard Morgan writing in Adweek described the movie as a flop.
It had great "wom." (That's Hollywoodspeak for "word of mouth.") And its premise was more than promising. (As Paramount Pictures itself summed up the story line: "a quest to bring honesty to corporate America by devising ad copy that candidly communicates what would traditionally only be the subtext of most ads.")
That's why it would seem that Hollywood—through this week's release of Crazy People, the highly promoted film starring Dudley Moore and Daryl Hannah—would have Madison Avenue on the ropes as never before.
Advertising is perfect fodder ... for the outrageous parody Crazy People purports to be. The movie was to have been a comedy with balls, an expose bold enough to use real brand names.
But, sadly, it just ain't so. Crazy People, it turns out, is even more trivial than the industry it seeks to tweak.31
Bad reviews by critics inside and outside the advertising industry do not actually have much to do with the movie-going public. This may have been just one of those many movies that Hollywood turns out seeking to keep multiplex theaters full. It certainly was not a darling of the cognoscenti nor the public critics of advertising like Putney Swope was and continues to be. However, in its original run and now as a popular DVD, Crazy People has received some degree of public acclaim. It is usually included in any list of films about advertising.32
How then to access the cumulative effect of The Hucksters, Putney Swope, and Crazy People? At least one thing is clear. Hollywood doesn't like advertising very much. It has laid down a critique that it repeats from time to time, reaching different audiences at different times, but nonetheless influencing public opinion and, sometimes, influence leaders along the way. There is something else as well to note. It is that advertising has been pretty much mum about this critique. It has done little to challenge it, answer it, or take it seriously.
5. Mad Men. The Megamovie (2007-Present)
Martha Stewart opened the panel on gender disparity [at the 2011 Cannes Lions advertising festival] with a story of her own experience with Madison Avenue's sexism. When she was a teenaged model in the late 1950s, she once went on a "go-see" casting call in which the models had to wear bikinis even though the commercial for which they were auditioning had nothing to do with swimwear:The ad executives just wanted to see a bunch of pretty girls in bikinis. The creator of Mad Men, she suggested, "has missed a lot of what went on, on Madison Avenue in those days. It's the truth. The reality is much worse than the program on television."33
Mad Men, the AMC TV series, has—at least for the present—overshadowed Hollywood's impressions of advertising. A total of 52 episodes have aired between 2007 and 2011. The first three seasons are also available as popular DVDs.34 In the sheer number of hours of exposure, it would take 26 2-hour Hollywood films to compete for the same amount of public mind-share.35 Viewership, however, may be more limited than some Hollywood exposures. Nonetheless, the audience for Mad Men has not been so much the public at large, but one more like those who flocked to Putney Swope.36 A quick Internet search reveals its enormous popularity among bloggers, columnists, more educated members of the public, those nostalgic for the 1960s, and even advertising people themselves. Thus, the consideration of Hollywood/filmic/mass-media representations of advertising must consider what it is Mad Men actually says about advertising.
Vincent Canby of the New York Times dubbed The Sopranos and a small number of other TV series "megamovies."37 He likens them to Hollywood films but he points out that the spectacle is so protracted and so involved that the term "movie" cannot do it justice. He notes:
Movies and television have been feeding off each other for years, each trying to capture whatever part of the mass audience is the other's territory. In this age of political strategy dictated by public opinion poll, movies and television behave like a pair of rival party candidates for the same office: each side quietly adopts policies that differ from the other's only in degree, rarely in substance.38
Megamovie is indeed a good term to describe the Mad Men series. At least as much care has gone into its production as a Hollywood feature film, but its sheer length and thus the complexity of what it deals with makes it difficult to compare with any single film.39
The series is set in the 1960s in the fictional Sterling Cooper (later, Sterling Cooper Draper and Pryce) advertising agency on Madison Avenue. It follows the lives of a handful of admen and their wives, secretaries, and (occasional) female co-workers in and out of the office. There are smoke-filled rooms, three-martini lunches, booze flowing in the office, philandering, swearing, and, not least, lying, cheating, and deception—all set against the background of the ferment of 1960s America.
Read about the treatment of race, class, gender, and sexuality in Mad Men elsewhere in ADText.
In line with the established Hollywood format of peppering stories set in ad agencies with supposed print ads and commercials, Mad Men stays true to form. This time, however, the ads are for real products and many (most?) are actual paid product placements within the programming itself. The Heineken account, for example, is the focus of one of the early episodes and appears so often and so favorably that the episode takes on an infomercial-like quality.
Additionally, as with some films, the story is not only about advertising but other major themes as well. There is a significant focus on the conservatism and subsequent social upheavals of the 1960s. It is also about race, class, gender, and sexuality. Perhaps most important, according to Mad Men's creator, Matthew Weiner, the issue of identity is the recurring leitmotif in the lives of the characters.41 Each one seems to be searching for his or her own sense of life's meaning, of belonging, of value, of worth, and so on. Such questions are impossible to answer simply, or perhaps at all—and that in turn spawns tales of personal struggles from episode to episode.
What Mad Men actually says about advertising cannot be summed up simply either. Its sheer length provides the opportunity for a much more nuanced and rounded view of the business than Hollywood has managed to date. There is much more here about the daily workings of advertising than ever before. This view inside an ad agency is not provided all at once, but it comes rather in bits and pieces as the episodes unfold. These fragments, although never integrated into a comprehensive overview of the advertising business, do show many of its most important facets: the importance of clients (getting them, coddling them, pleasing them, providing them with good work, and fearing them), research (ranging from informal conversations with a waiter, a wife, or an acquaintance to more formal techniques like focus groups), and the creative process (turning hunches and insights into commercials, being creative within the limits of agreed upon strategies, and eureka moments).
Mad Men's mega-movie format provides abundant opportunities to watch the creative process as it unfolds. Perhaps none is more poignant than Don Draper's (the central character) summing up what he has learned and understands as the essence of a new product—the Kodak Carousel Slide Projector. As Don presents the idea for an advertising campaign to the client, his creative genius comes through. As front man, he takes all the credit, never mentioning the help he received from his creative team.
It's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.... It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called the Wheel. It's called the Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels—around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.43
Commenting on this scene, David Kronke writes: "Here the show reveals the creative process, how artists look within themselves to reveal greater truths, as Don bases this pitch after a melancholy jaunt through his own life and its failures."44
Familiar themes (already seen in the films already discussed) include the moral dilemma of doing what is required to best service the client versus what is morally right, lying for a living, and the insanity of the advertising business. What is genuinely new here are all the details about the actual workings of the daily business of advertising. The audience sees the admen struggling to get, impress, and hold on to clients. They see inside the creative process as new ideas are generated and turned into ads. They see the competition and jealousy of co-workers. They see promotions for good work and firings for burn out. They see admen pondering the essence of the products they must advertise. They see teamwork and back-biting in the office. Mad Men is much more than a story about people who just happen to work in advertising.
View a panel discussion as experts dissect Mad Men and its accuracy.
Matthew Weiner may have put more effort into the verisimilitude of his representation of advertising than his predecessors in film. He painstakingly interviewed ad men and women. He read books about the 1960s. Indeed, it seems that he lived, breathed, and dreamed about the 1960s in his perfectionist quest to get things right.
I talked to some people who are in advertising now, [and then] tried to do research with people who were in the advertising business at that time. I found that, with the exception of very few people, most of the guys who had the job that my hero has in the show are dead. They were very hard-living people. I also think that people's memories aren't so great. What I got out of these things is that I had gotten most of it right.... I think that advertising people like to see themselves as darkly glamorous people.46
Here are the reactions of two top advertising executives who like Mad Men. Keith Reinhart, Chairman Emeritus of DDB Worldwide, in introducing Matthew Weiner at a Clio Awards presentation, "confirmed the show's depiction of those days in advertising, described by The New York Times as "smoking, drinking, writing and womanizing," with a story about how he met his wife as she was fleeing an "inebriated account director who was chasing her down the hall. How lucky was I?" he said. "Mad Men has captured the essence of the 1960s ad world and given us a fantastic look at what it was like."47
Bob Greenberg, Chairman/CEO/Global Chief Creative Officer, R/GA, in an editorial about the future of advertising looks back at Mad Men: "Love it or hate it, the show does a brilliant job of portraying the advertising business as it exists today. Today? Yes, today. Sterling Cooper circa 1960-62 is nearly identical to the agency business in 2008. The fundamental model of ad agencies hasn't changed much in 50 years."48
Here are the reactions of two others who do not think the series accurately reflects either the ad business or early 1960s America. Advertising great George Lois sees Mad Men as less an homage to a creative era, than a rather ridiculous and misleading soap opera. In a bizarre pairing in the August (2010) edition of Playboy, we get an angry essay about the show from Lois wrapped around the nude pictorial of Crista Flanagan, an actress who plays a secretary named Lois on the program who is famous for driving over someone's foot with a tractor—in the office. So while one Lois shows off her alluring, dewy body parts, the other rants that the show is "oblivious to the inspiring civil rights movement, the burgeoning women's lib movement, the evil Vietnam war and other seismic events of the turbulent, roller-coaster 1960s that altered America forever." He also writes, "The heroic movers and shakers of the Creative Revolution ... bear no resemblance to the cast of characters on Mad Men."49
Listen to Lippert' and Messner's discussion of Mad Men.
Tom Messner of Euro RSCG (who has worked in advertising since 1968 and is thus familiar with at least the latter part of the time frame of Mad Men) "says that many of the episodes make advertising look like a 'buffoon industry.'"
6. Other Films and TV Programs Dealing with Advertising
The three films and one TV series discussed here are by no means all of the representations of the world of advertising that have come out of Hollywood and its associated field of television. However, a consideration of these four is sufficient to show the degree to which certain themes as well as a general assessment of advertising and advertising people have been replicated from instance to instance. Certainly, there are important differences in the stories and time periods in which they are set and were written, but these differences do not mitigate the power of the story that Hollywood tells about advertising.
In the qualitative tradition of anthropology, there has always been the question for non-survey research to ask: How many individuals/groups/societies are enough to study? This is asked in the context of seeking to offer generalizations about the nature of individual, social, and/or cultural processes. The answer has always been that you know you have enough examples when the same themes begin to repeat themselves as new cases are added. Additional ones serve primarily to add nuances, round out details, and largely confirm the observations from studies of previous cases.50
So it is too in the study of cultural representations. In this case, the paradigm for advertising that is apparent in these cases largely recurs in additional films and TV programs, albeit sometimes in more limited, selected, distorted, and/or exaggerated ways.
The advertising trade journal Adweek published its list of the 25 best movies about advertising.51 The criteria used in constructing this list were critical reviews and viewer comments from the Internet. Putney Swope and Crazy People are ranked 9th and 21st in Adweek's list. Despite its impact on the public's image of advertising at the time, The Hucksters does not make the trade journal's list at all.
|1||Planes, Trains and Automobiles||1987|
|3||Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?||1957|
|4||Lost in America||1985|
|5||Lover Come Back||1961|
|6||Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House||1948|
|8||How to Get Ahead in Advertising||1989|
|10||Art and Copy||2009|
|11||I'll Never Forget What's'isname||1967|
|12||Catch Us If You Can||1965|
|14||How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days||2003|
|15||What Women Want||2000|
|18||Nothing in Common||1986|
|19||Take a Letter, Darling||1942|
|23||Every Home Should Have One||1970|
William M. O'Barr is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University where he has taught since 1969. He holds secondary appointments in the Departments of Sociology and English. He has been a visiting professor at Northwestern, Dalhousie, and Oxford. He has been recognized for his outstanding undergraduate teaching by both the Duke University Alumni Association and Trinity College (Duke University). His course Advertising and Society: Global Perspectives is one of Duke's most popular undergraduate courses. His seminars include Advertising and Masculinity, Children and Advertising, and The Language of Advertising.
He is author and co-author of ten books, including Culture and the Ad: Exploring Otherness in the World of Advertising, Rules versus Relationships, and Just Words: Law, Language, and Power. He has conducted anthropological research in Brazil, China, East Africa, India, Japan, and the US. In addition to his interest in social and cultural aspects of advertising, Professor O'Barr has researched law in a variety of cultural settings.
In 2000, he founded Advertising & Society Review and served as editor from 2000 to 2005. He is author of ADTextOnline.org, which will consist of 20 units published as supplements to A&SR.
1. Justin Smallbridge, "The Gray Flannel Fixation: What Is It About the Ad Business That Is So Strangely Bewitching for Movie and Television Writers?" Marketing 105, no. 43 (Oct 30, 2000): 12. Editor's note: Years when films were released were inserted.
2. Frederic Wakeman, The Hucksters (New York: Reinhart & Co, 1946), 45.
3. The term brand would be used in this context today, but in the 1940s the concept of advertising as brand management had not become its mainstay. Advertisers talked about promoting the products and services of their clients.
4. Broadcasting received "more diverse and insistent criticism" in 1946, wrote columnist Jack Gould [of The New York Times], "than the industry had received in the whole of its previous twenty-five years." Quoted in Alan Havig, "Frederic Wakeman's The Hucksters and the Postwar Debate over Commercial Radio," Journal of Broadcasting 28, no. 2 (Spring 1984): 188.
5. Havig, "Frederic Wakeman's The Hucksters," 191.
6. Ratner quoted in Time, November 10, 1947, as quoted in Havig, 191.
7. "It pays to advertise, but it pays even better to write about the advertising business. Four hundred thousand dollars for four weeks' work is the cheerful record established by Frederic Wakeman, author of The Hucksters, which is currently leading all best-seller lists and moving out of bookstores at about 3000 copies a week." Clip Boutell, "That Soap Peddler's Really Cleaning Up," The Washington Post, August 4, 1946, B6.
8. The Hucksters, Dir. Jack Conway, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer © 1947.
9. Harold B. Thompson, "Background and Beginnings of The Advertising Council" (New York: Advertising Council, April 1, 1952 [retyped February 1983]), 10. Quoted in Robert Jackall and Janice M. Hirota, Image Makers: Advertising, Public Relations, and the Ethos of Advocacy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 39.
10. "Hollywood ad club drops term huckster," Los Angeles Times, Oct 2, 1953: 2.
11. Bosley Crowther, "Gauging the Influence of Such Films as Brute Force and The Hucksters," New York Times, July 20, 1947, X1.
12. "Hollywood Now About Ready to Make Up for The Hucksters," The Washington Post, September 7, 1947, L6.
13. John McDonough, "The Image Makers. Image," Wall Street Journal, January 21, 1991, 9.
14. John Patterson, "Madison Avenue Breakdown: What Happened When New York Jewish Comedy Collided with Black Power?" The Guardian, September 28, 2006. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2006/sep/28/features.johnpatterson.
15. Putney Swope, Dir. Robert Downey, Sr., Herald Productions © 1969.
16. Putney Swope.
17. Putney Swope.
18. Erik Todd Dellums, "Share the Fantasy," April 25, 2011. http://eriktodddellums.wordpress.com/2011/04/25/erik-todd-dellums-presents-share-the-fantasy/
19. Chardman, "Swope .08," Kill Ugly Radio (blog), October, 22, 2009, http://uglyradio.wordpress.com/2008/10/22/swope-08/.
20. It is difficult to locate commentaries and stories about industry reaction in library data bases and on the Internet.
21. Patterson, "Madison Avenue Breakdown." http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2006/sep/28/features.johnpatterson
22. Crazy People, Dir. Tony Bill, Paramount Pictures © 1990.
23. Crazy People.
24. Crazy People.
25. Crazy People.
26. Carolyn Acker, "Crazy People Film Draws Protesters," The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 6, 1990.
27. "Crazy People?: Just How Far Over the Top Are They? We Asked Some Calgary Ad People to Respond to Their Hollywood Image." Calgary Herald, June 14, 2000: 3.
28. "Ad Parodies a Hit; Crazy People Isn't: Movie Premise is Advertising Based on Truth. Most Madison Avenue Executives Aren't Amused," Los Angeles Times, April 20, 1990, 8.
29. Carrie Rickey, "In Crazy People, An Executive Is Locked Up For Honest Ads," The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 11, 1990.
30. Peter Rainer, "Crazy People: Some Laughs but a Good Idea Goes to Waste," Los Angeles Times, April 11, 1990, 4.
31. Richard Morgan, "All Thumbs Down: Crazy People Is Worse Than the Advertising It Tries to Parody," Adweek, April 9, 1990,
32. Here are three blogger's points of view on advertising films. Alton Miller, "Movies with Advertising, Marketing or PR Themes" accessed September 20, 2011, http://work.colum.edu/~amiller/movielist.htm. Amy and Nancy Harrington, "10 Best Movies about Advertising" MadeMan (blog), March 17, 2010, http://www.mademan.com/mm/10-best-movies-about-advertising.html. "Movies About Advertising," accessed September 20, 2011, http://www.chicagoportfolio.com/b_movies.html.
33. Simon Houpt, "Where the Women Are: Mad Men Mentality Rules Ad World," Toronto Globe and Mail, June 21, 2011, 12:38 p.m. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/international-news/global-exchange/globe-correspondents/where-the-women-are-mad-men-mentality-rules-ad-world/article2069284/.
34. Amy Chozick, author of "The Women Behind Mad Men," (Wall Street Journal, August 7, 2009) writes: "Mad Men is benefitting from new television-viewing habits: while many viewers tune in to watch original episodes, the show relies heavily on DVDs, downloads and video-on-demand services. Despite acclaim—it was the first basic-cable series to win an Emmy award for best drama and is nominated for 16 Emmys this year—it averaged just 1.5 million viewers per new episode at 10 p.m. last season. That was a 63% increase from its first season audience. More than 30 million viewers saw the show last year on downloads, video-on-demand services and all broadcasts, including repeat broadcasts the same night as original episodes, AMC says. That doesn't include DVD sales of season two which came out last month and are expected to exceed $18 million in the first six months. It was the first original scripted drama series on basic cable channel AMC, formerly known as American Movie Classics, which had largely showed reruns of classic films." Season 4 is scheduled for release on March 29, 2011.
35. Mindshare is a term of art in contemporary advertising used to refer to consumer awareness about a brand.
36. In 2009, Mad Men was the top-ranked cable show and placed 30th out of 200 prime-time TV shows according to Optimedia rankings. About 2.9 million viewers watched the 2010 season's premiere. Although these numbers fall short of the much larger audiences that a few shows pull, demographic analyses show that this audience to be the most affluent (and therefore, the most interesting to advertisers) of any cable show. Steve Mcclellan, "Lost, Heroes Top Content Power Ratings," Adweek, May 14, 2009. http://www.adweek.com/news/television/lost-heroes-top-content-power-ratings-99283. Lacey Rose, "Mad Men Scores Where It Counts," Forbes.com, August 17, 2009. http://www.forbes.com/2009/08/17/mad-men-amc-business-entertainment-television.html.
37. Vincent Canby, "From the Humble Mini-Series Comes the Magnificent Megamovie," New York Times, October 31, 1999.
38. Canby, "The Magnificent Megamovie."
39. Benjamin Schwarz, "The Devil's in the Details" The Atlantic Monthly, November 2009, 91-94,96,98.
40. Mad Men, Season 2, Episode 8, "A Night to Remember." Original Air Date 14 September, 2008 by AMC.
41. "The big question the show is trying to answer through Don has to do with identity," Weiner says. "Who am I?.It's only the biggest theme in all of Western literature." Eric Konigsberg, "A Fine Madness," Rolling Stone, September 16, 2010, 42-49.
42. Mad Men, Season 4, Episode 1, "Public Relations." Original Air Date 25 July 2010 by AMC.
43. Mad Men, Season 1, Episode 13, "The Wheel." Original Air Date 18 October, 2007 by AMC.
44. Commenting on this scene, David Kronke writes: "Here the show reveals the creative process, how artists look within themselves to reveal greater truths, as Don bases this pitch after a melancholy jaunt through his own life and its failures. David Kronke, "Turning Heads in More Ways Than One!" The Word, November 2010, 68.
45. Mad Men, Season 1, Episode 13, "The Wheel."
46. Kamau High, "Matthew Weiner's No Madman," Adweek, July 30, 2007. http://www.adweek.com/news/advertising/matthew-weiners-no-madman-89728.
47. Eleftheria Parpis, "CLIO Honors Mad Men Creator Matthew Weiner," Adweek, May 13, 2009. http://www.adweek.com/aw/content_display/esearch/e3iacbc03133413785fae1f3a9aca110716.
48. Bob Greenberg, "Modern Blueprint: We've Had the Sterling Cooper Model for a Half Century. With a New World in our Grasp, It's Time for a New Look" Adweek, November 2008, 64. http://www.rga.com/news/article/2008/modern-blueprint.
49. Barbara Lippert, "Mad Men Unvarnished," Mediaweek, August 28, 2010.
50. In a community study, for example, it might be that a dozen or so people are enough to get the basic patterns and that the addition of another two dozen or so round out and confirm what has been discovered without adding much new in the way of basic insights.
51. David Griner, "25 Best Advertising Movies Ever Made" AdFreak (blog). June 16, 2011, http://www.adweek.com/adfreak/25-best-advertising-movies-ever-made-132318.