Advertising Educational Foundation
Fig. 1. Mad Men is a Television Drama Series Set in a Fictional Ad Agency on Madison Avenue in the 1960s
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Fig. 1.

Mad Men is a Television Drama Series Set in a Fictional Ad Agency on Madison Avenue in the 1960s1

1. Introduction

Representations of advertising in popular cultural media such as film and TV play an important role in shaping public ideas about advertising. On the big screen or the small one, these “insider” views of advertising are about as close as most people get to what actually happens on a day-to-day basis in the work and lives of those who construct the images of desire and consumption that populate contemporary society. inline graphic inline graphic

This unit examines what is by all accounts the most prominent display of the world of advertising in popular culture in the first decade of the current century—the television series, Mad Men. Its name refers, of course, to Madison Avenue, the erstwhile venue of New York’s biggest and most successful advertising agencies, and to the people—usually male—who work in them. The setting is America of the 1960s, a sort of golden age for advertising before the turmoil of Vietnam, civil rights, student protests, and feminism. inline graphic inline graphic

The central focus of this unit is how the multi-year series portrays the key social issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality. These are not the only themes that might be examined in analyzing the significance and popularity of Mad Men, but they are some of the most pervasive social and cultural topics. The episodes show both the inner workings of agency life, and the content of advertisements from the period—both of which are sites where race, class, gender, and sexuality are displayed. inline graphic inline graphic

2. Gender

Men’s relationships with women—and conversely, women’s relationships with men—constitute a cornerstone for many Mad Men episodes. In the very first episode of the series, the professional life of adman Don Draper, is contrasted with that of two women, Joan Holloway (the office manager) and Peggy Olsen (the new “girl” in the office).2 Don sits in a bar musing over why consumers select their preferred brands of cigarettes. He lights up, sips his cocktail, and quizzes the African-American waiter about his preference for Old Gold over other brands of cigarettes. inline graphic inline graphic

Meanwhile, back in the office, Joan instructs Peggy on how she ought to behave in her role as secretary in order to succeed.3 There is no smoking or drinking for them, but instead, strict rules on how to please the boss. Joan’s advice is to keep rye and aspirin on hand and that “He may act like he wants a secretary, but most of the time they’re looking for something between a mother and a waitress.” Her expression hints they also want a mistress. This is only the start of what Peggy must learn. She complains to Joan that the sexual harassment is constant.4 Joan is surprised because she is personally flattered by the attention, and thinks that a plain girl like Peggy should feel the same. While she mulls this over, every man passing her desk rubbernecks or winks. inline graphic inline graphic

Women’s bodies are on display at Sterling Cooper
Video 1.

Women’s bodies are on display at Sterling Cooper5

As the episodes unfold, it becomes clear that Peggy’s ideas are as good as or better than some of the men’s. However, her promotion and acceptance as a copywriter is long in coming. Men ask her to bring coffee and run errands, and many expect to have sex with her (in fact, one does, and impregnates her). When she is eventually promoted, she must share her office with one of the less successful men and the copy machine. inline graphic inline graphic

Joan, by contrast, uses her femininity and curvaceous body at work. She defines her role as making things happen, smoothing over conflicts, and keeping things running efficiently in the office. She advises Peggy to give flowers to the women who operate the switchboards to ingratiate herself to them. Joan fills in when a job becomes vacant. She also sleeps with the boss in a manner that seems more business-like than emotionally involved. inline graphic inline graphic

Mad Men clearly defines gender roles at work and at home. Don spends his days at work. He cheats on his wife, seemingly without guilt but more as a matter of male privilege. When he comes home, his wife Betty has supper waiting, the children are in place, and Don can pour himself a drink and relax. The house, Betty, and the children are the accoutrements of his success. inline graphic inline graphic

Don Draper’s Home Life
Video 2.

Don Draper’s Home Life6

Betty, on the other hand, is bored by the limitations of her daily routine. Her African-American housekeeper does most of the domestic work and minds the children so that Betty has little to do except lunch with her friends, ride horses, and drink. She is precisely the kind of woman that Betty Friedan would describe in The Feminine Mystique (1963) and whom feminism would recruit. inline graphic inline graphic

The themes of gender at home and in the workplace are paralleled in the content of the ads showcased in the series. Although Mad Men depicts the creation of both real and fictitious campaigns, the process of making ads, and the content of their messages, highlight the limits and expectations of gender roles in the 1960s. inline graphic inline graphic


The Sterling Cooper Agency (the fictitious agency within which Mad Men is set) lands the Playtex account and launches an effort to emulate some of the sexiness and emotional appeal of the competing Maidenform brand. For more than 20 years (roughly, 1949 to 1969), Maidenform depicted women’s fantasies about what they might do and where their Maidenform bras might take them. Invariably scantily dressed women showing off their brassieres were the mainstay of the campaign. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 2. An Example of the “I Dreamed. . .” Maidenform Ads
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Fig. 2.

An Example of the “I Dreamed. . .” Maidenform Ads7

The men of Sterling Cooper brainstorm about how to promote Playtex bras.8 They decide against continuing the previous Playtex focus on comfort and fit and to turn instead to answering the often-asked question, “What do women want?” inline graphic inline graphic

Every Single Woman Is Either a Jackie or a Marilyn
Video 3.

Every Single Woman Is Either a Jackie or a Marilyn9

The plethora of Internet websites concerning the Madonna/whore complex attest to the saliency of the concept. A psychoanalytic understanding of the idea would be a good place to begin.

As that idea is unpacked, the proposition emerges that women want to fulfill the desires of men for a nurturing, maternal woman who will support a man emotionally, raise children he can be proud of, and create and manage a perfect home environment for him, as well as a sexually available, physically attractive woman who will satisfy his sexual appetite and keep him coming back for more. These dual expectations that in reality conflict with one another place extraordinary demands on women. They require that a woman must be both a Madonna and a whore, and understand how to jockey these disparate roles. In his presentation, Don phrases this as the choice between being a Jackie Kennedy or a Marilyn Monroe. In the workaday environment of Sterling Cooper, it is the choice between being a Joan or a Peggy. inline graphic inline graphic

The campaign that the Sterling Cooper men devise proposes that Playtex bras will help a woman meet both these expectations. In the clip below, Don eloquently explains the idea for such a campaign to client representatives from Playtex. All this takes place against the background of Peggy having risen to the role of copywriter, but finding herself typically left out of the “boys’ club” of men working in the office. inline graphic inline graphic

Don Presents his Agency’s Campaign for Playtex
Video 4.

Don Presents his Agency’s Campaign for Playtex10

Fig. 3. The Madonna/Whore Complex
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Fig. 3.

The Madonna/Whore Complex11

Belle Jolie

Another episode focuses on the agency’s work for Belle Jolie lipstick.12 Lipstick is, of course, a product which women use. Thus, the men who will manage the account, write the copy, and produce the ads must study the consumers and understand their ideas and emotions concerning the product. The gendered roles of male-copywriter and female-consumer are typical for that time. inline graphic inline graphic

Read about the use of Focus Groups in advertising in “The Role of Research in Advertising” in ADText. The concept of male gaze is important in film studies and advertising critiques.

A focus group of Sterling Cooper’s female employees meets in a specially designed room.13 As the men observe from behind a one-way mirror and eavesdrop on the conversations, they take note of what the women are doing and saying, but not without denigrating them, judging their sexiness, and ignoring those they do not consider attractive. Many scholars refer to the way the men are observing the women as the male gaze— referring to the pleasure, judgment, and objectification that the men exhibit in viewing the women. Since the men believe that the women’s reason for wearing lipstick is to attract men, they look upon the women and evaluate them according to how attractive they find them. inline graphic inline graphic

A Focus Group of Women Testing Lipstick Colors
Video 5.

A Focus Group of Women Testing Lipstick Colors14

Peggy and Joan are two of the women, and their behavior and comments highlight alternative ways that women behave. Joan rises to the occasion, showing off her femininity in poses, smiles, and comments. Peggy, on the other hand, is a woman who enjoys looking pretty, but she is also a thinker who seems to understand the objectification that is taking place. She also utters some lines that the copywriters pick up immediately—“a basket of kisses” (her description of the lipstick blotters in the trash), and “mark your man”15 (with lipstick). inline graphic inline graphic

When the team presents the agency’s plan for Belle Jolie to the client, Peggy’s ideas are very much in evidence.16 The proposals are presented as those of Sterling Cooper and no credit is given to Peggy. In fact, she has not even been invited to the meeting. However, the client likes the ideas and accepts Don’s proposal. As a consequence, Don recognizes Peggy’s potential as a copywriter and asks her for more ideas. inline graphic inline graphic

The Mad Men Present Ideas to the Client
Video 6.

The Mad Men Present Ideas to the Client17

Fig. 4. Sterling Cooper’s Work for Belle Jolie
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Fig. 4.

Sterling Cooper’s Work for Belle Jolie18


The mad men dominate women, control them, and manipulate their sexuality throughout the series. When the agency attempts to create a brand identity and campaign for an electric weight loss machine, they ask their wives and female employees to try the machine.19 Although its role in weight loss is dubious, the machine’s vibrating apparatus does stimulate women sexually. The men laugh over the idea that a machine could replace their sexual role, and make bawdy jokes about what women like about the Electrosizer machine. As shown elsewhere in the series, women’s sexuality is directed toward pleasing men. Even on the few occasions when it does not involve a man, men retain control of female sexuality. inline graphic inline graphic

Peggy is asked to take the machine home and to try it. Back at the office, she reports to the men and proposes copy for an ad. The men like her ideas, but ask for more details about what the machine actually does. Peggy, never one to flag under pressure, attempts to be more explicit by calling it “stimulating.” Don adds, “From what I can understand, it provides the pleasure of a man without the man.” The men talk in front of Peggy as if she were not present, making jokes are about whose wife is sexier, which man performs better sexually, and so on. inline graphic inline graphic

Peggy Tries the Electrosizer at Home
Video 7.

Peggy Tries the Electrosizer at Home20

Mad Men Discuss the Electrosizer
Video 8.

Mad Men Discuss the Electrosizer21

Right Guard

The treatment of masculinity in the series is less ironic than that of femininity. First of all, there is less overt discussion of it—because masculinity is normative in their world and it is femininity that is different. Second, masculinity in America has had no social parallel to the feminist movement to bring the issues, challenges, and changes more into public consciousness. Nonetheless, there are moments in Mad Men when issues of masculinity take center stage. inline graphic inline graphic

Sterling Cooper’s work for Right Guard men’s deodorant reveals how the mad men struggle to understand not what would make a man buy Right Guard, but rather why a woman would buy it for a man.22 This proposition is based on the widespread understanding in 20th-century advertising and marketing that the vast majority of consumer purchases are made by women. inline graphic inline graphic

Don Talks about Women as Purchasers of Consumer Products
Video 9.

Don Talks about Women as Purchasers of Consumer Products23

Male bravado and roughhousing accompany the men’s attempt to use their own experience to imagine how to sell the aerosol deodorant, a new entrant into the American marketplace of the early 1960s. They note the rocket-like shape of the can and the explosive spray that emerges from it. They toss the can around the office like a basketball, commenting on one another’s sports skills, and finally, pin one hapless member of the group to the table to give the product a try. His shirt unbuttoned and pulled open, they douse him with the aerosol spray—but not without noting the parallel of his victimization with that of a girl on prom night. inline graphic inline graphic

The Mad Men Roughhouse When Discussing Masculinity
Video 10.

The Mad Men Roughhouse When Discussing Masculinity24

Misogyny and male superiority run so thoroughly through the episodes that they, like cigarettes and liquor, become commonplace. However, it is not just men’s treatment of women and the idea that men are in charge that the episodes reiterate. It is the domination of a particular type of man—the white, heterosexual, male, Anglo-Saxon Protestant who has yet to be challenged in his birthright claim to authority and status. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 5. Sterling Cooper’s Work for Right Guard
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Fig. 5.

Sterling Cooper’s Work for Right Guard25

3. Race and Ethnicity

Read about the Madison Avenue Project and 4A’s call for diversity in advertising agencies.

Even in the 21st-century, issues of race and multiculturalism in agency staff and in the content of ads remain salient issues. In 2004, the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Madison Avenue Project called on agencies to diversify their personnel in order to better reflect American society. This call focuses especially on African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and other ethnic minorities. It focuses less on gender and religion, although these were indeed issues in earlier decades. Prior to the 1950s, most large agencies were staffed by white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant males who held virtually all of the top positions as depicted in Mad Men. Most women in ad agencies were secretaries, typists, telephone operators, and so on. Only a very few managed to move beyond these ranks. inline graphic inline graphic

After World War II, the complexion of ad agencies changed to include Jews, Italians, and other white ethnicities. Women began to move up the corporate ladder. In more recent years, women have come to outnumber men in overall agency staff numbers, and agencies have become more diversified in terms of ethnicity, with still some distance to go in reaching the goals the industry has set for itself. inline graphic inline graphic

The advertising industry frequently identifies certain ethnic groups as deserving special attention in terms of marketing strategies and representation within ads. These groups are not singled out because of social concerns, but rather because of their size within the larger population and their overall spending power. These so-called niche markets are Hispanics, Asians, and African Americans. Some smaller agencies specialize in marketing to one or more of these groups. Large agency conglomerates often include a specialized division within their corporate structure to handle niche markets. Thus, a client company may hire more than one agency (or agency group) to manage and produce advertising for different segments of the population. inline graphic inline graphic

View a contemporary commercial featuring non-white actors.

With regard to representing diversity within ads themselves, this matter is in flux and constantly changes. Just a few years ago, it would have been difficult to find, say, a TV commercial on national television that depicted consumers who just happened to be African American or Asian. Today, this is much more frequent. inline graphic inline graphic

In the world of Mad Men, neither agency personnel nor ad content vary from the straight and narrow. The series, however, deals with both personnel and ad content issues, and treats them in an informative, yet ironic manner. For example, it is quite clear that all the mad men are white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. When Menken’s Department Store comes to the agency, this ethnic barrier is ignored in order to accept the account and make money from it. inline graphic inline graphic

Roger Sterling wants to show Rachel Menken that the agency staff includes Jews as well.26 He rounds up a young man from the mailroom who happens to be Jewish. The man masquerades as someone from the art department but it is clear to everyone, especially Rachel, that he knows nothing about managing and servicing accounts. They also serve a shrimp cocktail at the meeting, oblivious to Kosher food restrictions. inline graphic inline graphic

Roger Attempts to Present Sterling Cooper as Ethnically Diverse
Video 11.

Roger Attempts to Present Sterling Cooper as Ethnically Diverse27

This issue repeats itself when Olympic Cruise Lines and the Israeli Tourism Bureau come to Sterling Cooper seeking help in promoting Israel as a tourist destination.28 During a brainstorming session about how best to represent Israel, the mad men demonstrate their limited knowledge and show disdain for what they do know about it. Don summarizes their collective wisdom: “So, we have a quasi-Communist state where the women have guns and it’s filled with Jews.” Salvatore Romano offers the opinion that the best thing the country has going for it is that the people are good looking and proposes a positive, if hackneyed, image of the Red Sea parting before a deluxe hotel. inline graphic inline graphic

A Discussion of Israeli Tourism at Sterling Cooper
Video 12.

A Discussion of Israeli Tourism at Sterling Cooper29

Don turns to Rachel for help in understanding Jews.30 She responds with a long monologue about what it means to be Jewish in America. Her displeasure is obvious, and Don’s patronizing and lack of understanding aggravate her. She talks about the Jewish diaspora, the search for home, and how being Jewish per se does not make her an expert on Jews or Israelis. inline graphic inline graphic

Rachel Responds to Don’s Questions about Being Jewish
Video 13.

Rachel Responds to Don’s Questions about Being Jewish31

The overt racism and prejudice against people who are different runs throughout the series. In an early episode, account executive Pete Campbell returns from his honeymoon to find a Chinese family in traditional garb, complete with rice bowls, chopsticks, and live chickens in his office.32 His colleagues laugh uproariously at his dismay. The dialogue conveys attitudes that were common at the time: inline graphic inline graphic

Pete Campbell

“Who put the Chinaman in my office?”

Roger Sterling

“I want the Chinaman out of the building by lunch.”

Don Draper

“I’m still waiting on my shirts.”

It is clear from all this that the sensitivities and sensibilities of Asian Americans were not on the radar screen at Sterling Cooper. They are “other,” and the mad men and women of the office exhibit no kinship whatsoever with them. They are the object of ridicule and humor. inline graphic inline graphic

Ethnic Humor Mad Men Style
Video 14.

Ethnic Humor Mad Men Style33

Another instance of mad men ridiculing the “other” occurs around the discussion of the agency’s work for Mohawk Airlines.34 Don, arriving at a meeting, is addressed as “Chief.” His staff presents him with several ideas that draw on stereotypes of Native Americans—arrows, wagon trains, Pocahontas. Although Don rejects these ideas in favor of others that focus more on the dependability and safety of the airline, the use of stereotypes about “others” was frequent at the time. Mexicans were frequently depicted as lazy procrastinators, Scots as penny pinchers, Japanese as kimono-garbed tea drinkers, and so on. Such stereotypes frequently found their way into American advertising throughout the twentieth century. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 6. This 1930s Ad Relies on Stereotypes of Native Americans
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Fig. 6.

This 1930s Ad Relies on Stereotypes of Native Americans35

Read an excerpt from Professor Jason Chamber’s Madison Avenue and the Color Line .

African Americans get much the same treatment, but their appearance is more frequent in the episodes. The story is set in the 1960s, at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. One scene takes place at a party at Paul Kinsey’s bohemian New Jersey apartment, where his colleagues are introduced to his African-American girlfriend, Sheila White.36 On the way into the building, Pete’s wife comments: “I have no problem with Negroes. It’s the car I’m worried about.” Inside Paul introduces Joan to Sheila—but not without a certain degree of awkwardness for everyone. inline graphic inline graphic

An Awkward Moment When Joan Meets a Black Woman Socially
Video 15.

An Awkward Moment When Joan Meets a Black Woman Socially37

Another African-American woman in the series is the housekeeper for the Draper family. In both cases, the series never treats either woman as a central character, or examines the action from her point of view. However, the African-American women’s silence and expressionless faces convey the nature of the social roles relegated to them. inline graphic inline graphic

Another instance where African-American points of view are left to the viewer’s imagination is after two are fired.38 Peggy had some money stolen during the rowdy, after-hours office party for the 1960 Presidential election. She suspects that her co-workers raided her “mad money” after she left early. When she returns in the morning to find the office in disarray, vomit in her trash can, and her money missing, she is angry. She reports the theft hoping to get the partiers in trouble, but the effect is that two African-American men are fired—an elevator operator and a janitor. inline graphic inline graphic

Perhaps the most shocking, racially-charged moment in Mad Men is Roger’s rendition of My Old Kentucky Home in blackface at a Derby Days party.39 Such a thing would be out of place in contemporary America, and signifies a different historical era in race relations to today’s audiences. inline graphic inline graphic

Roger Performs in Blackface
Video 16.

Roger Performs in Blackface40

Beyond the work and personal lives of the mad men, African Americans appear as a potential niche market deserving of special attention. Pete notices that Admiral TV sets sell better in some regions of the country than others.41 He imagines that this may have to do with the demographics of where African Americans live. inline graphic inline graphic

He turns to Hollis, an elevator operator, to test his idea. Hollis, cautious about stirring the waters, offers a careful response. Pete hangs on to the idea that he is on to something big and continues to pursue it. When he offers this information to the client, he finds out that they already knew it. When he proposes to place ads for Admiral in such magazines as Ebony and Jet, they reject it on the grounds that associating their brand with “Negroes” will be detrimental to the overall market. inline graphic inline graphic

Pete’s Attempt to Understand the African-American Market
Video 17.

Pete’s Attempt to Understand the African-American Market42

Hispanics rarely appear in Mad Men, with the exception of an episode set in California. The Hispanic concierge, cabana boys, and valets—all service positions—underscore the social roles Hispanics typically played at this point in American history. 43 inline graphic inline graphic

There are other references to race and ethnicity throughout the series where the characters evoke stereotypes and statements about difference gratuitously. For example, Don, in one of his many bedroom scenes, talks about “pygmies in New Guinea who grind up their ancestors and drink the powder in a beer,” to which Betty responds that Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel while “those people were still living in caves discovering fire.”44 Despite some variance here with what anthropologists have reported about indigenous people in New Guinea and the origins of fire, this dialogue serves the purpose of underscoring the superiority of Western civilization and of Don’s and Betty’s lives. The use of the phrase “those people” signifies denigration and difference. inline graphic inline graphic

Don Talks about Pygmies and Cannibals
Video 18.

Don Talks about Pygmies and Cannibals45

Fig. 7. Sterling Cooper’s Work for Menken’s
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Fig. 7.

Sterling Cooper’s Work for Menken’s46

4. Sexuality

Read about the Stonewall Riots and the beginning of the Gay Rights Movement in America.

America in the 1960s was not a place where there were many open expressions of various sexual orientations. Indeed, homosexuality was itself a crime in most jurisdictions. That began to change only after the Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969, which is usually considered the beginning of the Gay Rights Movement. inline graphic inline graphic

Most of the characters in Mad Men live lives of heterosexual privilege. The possibility of same-sex desires and relationships does come up in some of the episodes, but it is usually ignored, submerged, or put back in the closet by the characters involved. For example, in Sal’s first appearance in the series, it would be difficult to ignore the many signs of his gayness.47 His mannerisms reflect what contemporary audiences read as behavioral traits of gay men—the way his fingers linger over an image of a shirtless male torso, the fluttering of his eyes, the way he looks at Don, and so on. It is his butch bravado that gives him away when he talks about his interest in women and how he’d behave with them. Finally, his ironic comment about living a dual life where values and behavior do not match refers not only to the advertising issue being discussed, but the reality of his personal life. inline graphic inline graphic

Sal, A Closeted Gay Man
Video 19.

Sal, A Closeted Gay Man48

Sal finds himself in perplexing situations when male clients make passes at him.49 Whatever complex desires he may have, terror and fear win out. Sal is constrained by the requirements of how he must behave at Sterling Cooper to be taken seriously. The requirements are not only that he proclaim and embody heterosexuality, but also that he submit to homosexual acts when a male client desires him.50 inline graphic inline graphic

Sal’s marriage to Kitty appears to be a ruse for maintaining his image as a straight man. In a poignant scene that takes place in their bedroom, Sal ignores Kitty’s invitation for sexual intimacy and instead enacts a campy performance of Ann-Margret performing Bye Bye Birdie. 51 inline graphic inline graphic

Sal and Kitty at Home
Video 20.

Sal and Kitty at Home52

Writer Daniel D’Addario thinks that the most accurate representation of homosexuality in Mad Men may be after Sal is fired and no longer appears in the series, thus rendering him out-of-sight, out-of mind. D’Addario comments:

Sal so strenuously works to establish all the bona fides of a straight playboy because sexuality, in the Mad Men world, is not even an issue to be dodged. Queerness is invisible. But gay men need not be, as long as they are willing to follow the rules. Sal’s quips about Ann-Margret’s sexiness, for instance, are too easily dismissed as comical, impossibly false by the 2000s audience, but why would an individual in the 1960s have any reason to think Sal didn’t find Ann-Margret a dish?53 inline graphic inline graphic

A parallel closeting occurs between two women. Joan’s roommate expresses her attraction to Joan, who responds by rebuffing her and telling her that she is delusional.54 inline graphic inline graphic

Joan’s Roommate, Carol, Makes a Pass
Video 21.

Joan’s Roommate, Carol, Makes a Pass55

Only once in the series does a gay man talk openly about his sexuality. In a break room scene, Kurt rebuffs the suggestion that he and Peggy, who have a date for a concert, are an item.56 Everyone is shocked and struck speechless until Kurt leaves. inline graphic inline graphic

Kurt’s Statement That He Is Gay Shocks the Break Room Crowd
Video 22.

Kurt’s Statement That He Is Gay Shocks the Break Room Crowd57

By contrast, heterosexuality is the norm in the lives and work of the mad men. Most of them are settled down in conventional marriages. Even though there may be all kinds of difficulties in the various marriages, appearances are good. Don and Roger are busy with their various extramarital affairs with attractive women. At the office, the mad men ogle women, and the women put a lot of energy into making themselves attractive and even available to the men. inline graphic inline graphic

Sexual Harassment is the Norm at Sterling Cooper
Video 23.

Sexual Harassment is the Norm at Sterling Cooper58

Fig. 8. Hetero-Normativity in a Sterling Cooper Ad
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Fig. 8.

Hetero-Normativity in a Sterling Cooper Ad59

5. Class

Class is another area of social distinction where the absence of the full spectrum of society speaks loudly. Advertising by its very nature addresses people who are potential buyers and consumers of the products it promotes, and, correspondingly, ignores those who are not affluent enough to be a part of the market. Some brands that Sterling Cooper advertises—American Airlines, Menken’s Department Store, Olympic Cruise Lines and Admiral TVs—represent costly purchases. Thus, Sterling Cooper, like advertising in general, is largely unconcerned with the lower rungs of society who cannot spend a lot. inline graphic inline graphic

Consequently, the social tableaux of the ads they make reflect affluent lifestyles. Thus, janitors, waiters, elevator operators, domestic servants, and grocery store managers are absent from ads. However, the underclass is present in the work and domestic lives of the mad men and their families. They are facilitators, servants, and staff, but never central characters nor people of importance. inline graphic inline graphic

It is significant to note that most such characters in Mad Men are also African American, which conflates race and class just as it was frequently conflated in American society. To be African American brought the expectation that a person was also of a lower social class, and to be of a lower social class entailed a high probability of being racially different from the “mainstream” of society. inline graphic inline graphic

The character of Sheila (Paul’s girlfriend) aptly illustrates this point. When Paul introduces her to Joan, he mentions that she is an assistant manager at Food Fair and quickly adds that she’s saving for school.60 By emphasizing her managerial position (as opposed to, say, working at the checkout in the supermarket), Paul is trying to elevate her position as much as possible. By mentioning that she’s saving for school, he suggests that her position is only temporary and that she aspires to a higher lifestyle. Later, Joan attempts to undercut Paul and point out his déclassé behavior by referring to Sheila as a “check-out girl.”61 inline graphic inline graphic

Joan and Paul Discuss Sheila
Video 24.

Joan and Paul Discuss Sheila62

Peter Dyckman Campbell’s family represents the opposite end of the social class spectrum. They are New York aristocracy—based on wealth over several generations, “good breeding,” and reputation—and are not altogether happy with Pete’s choice of advertising as a profession.63 Throughout the series he continues to seek the promotion and status within Sterling Cooper that he feels entitled to and that will prove his success to his family. Unfortunately for Pete, these aspirations are often thwarted. inline graphic inline graphic

Pete’s Family Disapproves of His Career in Advertising
Video 25.

Pete’s Family Disapproves of His Career in Advertising64

It is Peggy, however, who embodies the aspirational values of the American middle class that advertising so idolizes. She is the one who loves advertising, who wants to live the life that it promises, and who is able to articulate the desires of social mobility and affluent consumption patterns. Her own class origin—the daughter of a working class, Catholic family in Brooklyn—is different from the bourgeois lives of most of the mad men, who come from families who belonged to country clubs and who attended universities like Princeton. She shares an apartment with a roommate. She goes home for church and family dinner on Sundays. She lies in her room dreaming of an upper middle class lifestyle. This duality of experience and desire lies at the root of the insights that help her move up the professional ladder at Sterling Cooper. Who knows better than Peggy the discrepancy between what one has and the values that advertising articulates? inline graphic inline graphic

In one episode, Peggy’s mother fixes her up with a man she considers appropriate for Peggy.65 He is a nice-enough, blue collar truck driver, but he has little use for the “screaming and yelling” of advertising. Peggy, on the other hand, demonstrates her desire to consume the latest things and emulate the lifestyle advertising promotes. Proud to be his own boss, he belittles Peggy’s choice of the corporate world and the work she does in advertising. In a heated exchange, Peggy explains to him that the people who live in Manhattan and who work in advertising are “better than we are,” because they want things they haven’t yet seen. inline graphic inline graphic

Peggy Expresses Her Feelings about a Career in Advertising
Video 26.

Peggy Expresses Her Feelings about a Career in Advertising66

Fig. 9. Many of Sterling Cooper’s Ads Are Upmarket
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Fig. 9.

Many of Sterling Cooper’s Ads Are Upmarket67

6. Conclusion

The issues of gender, race, sexuality, and class underpin the very nature of American culture and society. As Mad Men depicts the culture of 1960s American advertising—both those who do the work of advertising and the advertisements they produce—it probes and comments on these basic social themes through the many episodes. Although one or another of the themes may be played up in a particular episode, they all appear in full force. inline graphic inline graphic

Gender displays recur. The social structure of the office—men in professional positions, women as their assistants—rings true of pre-Feminist Movement America in the 1960s. Every woman is either a Jackie or a Marilyn and every man wants them both—or at least most of the men. The admen direct the lives of women, not just those in the agency, but those in the entire society. It is a world in which men are dominant and women are subordinate and sexualized. inline graphic inline graphic

Mad Men is a world of heterosexual, white, male privilege—and those who deviate are kept at a distance and made powerless. Homosexuality is scorned, laughed at, and kept in the closet. To be non-white—indeed, to be non-Anglo-Saxon, Protestant white—is to be treated as different, other, and inferior. Ethnic, misogynist, and homophobic derision and humor abound in both the social structure and the advertising copy. inline graphic inline graphic

This is also a world where class origins are submerged and left behind in favor of mobility and achievement. It is a world where the reality of social class—in whatever terms: wealth, education, origins, work, and/or consumption—gives way to the culture and society of dreams and aspirations. inline graphic inline graphic

Even when some forms of social differentiation—ethnic and religious differences, homosexuality, and working-class status—are swept out of sight, the tableaux of the lives and work of the mad men are laid out for everyone to see. Despite their dismissal by the people who work in ad agencies and from the ads themselves, people of all social classes, sexual orientations, and ethnicities have access to the imagery and lifestyles of the ads. Nor is access to this television program about the lives of those who make the ads restricted to those whose culture is valorized. inline graphic inline graphic

William M. O’Barr

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, which will consist of more than 20 units published as supplements to A&SR.


2. Season 1, Episode 1, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.”

3. Season 1, Episode 1, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.”

4. Season 1, Episode 2, “Ladies Room.”

5. Season 1, Episode 2, “Ladies Room.”

6. Season 1, Episode 2, “Ladies Room.”

7. Maidenform Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

8. Season 2, Episode 6, “Maidenform.”

9. Season 2, Episode 6, “Maidenform.”

10. Season 2, Episode 6, “Maidenform.”

11. “The Mad Men Fashion File-Girls! Girls! Girls!”

12. Season 1, Episode 6, “Babylon,” and Season 1, Episode 8, “The Hobo Code.”

13. In the clip, the gendered roles of male-copywriter and female-consumer are clearly defined and the male-gaze posturing is clearly in evidence. This is one of the instances in the series where a rather realistic picture of the ad-making process is depicted. Focus groups like this—consumers talking about and using products while being observed by hidden ad-makers—are a mainstay of consumer research.

14. Season 1, Episode 6, “Babylon.”

15. Peggy’s original expression was, “Make a mark on your man,” which is changed by the copywriters to, “Mark your man,” thereby allowing them to claim the phrase as their own work.

16. Season 1, Episode 8, “The Hobo Code.”

17. Season 1, Episode 8, “The Hobo Code.”

19. Season 1, Episode 11, “Indian Summer.”

20. Season 1, Episode 11, “Indian Summer.”

21. Season 1, Episode 11, “Indian Summer.”

22. Season 1, Episode 2, “Ladies Room.”

23. Season 1, Episode 2, “Ladies Room.”

24. Season 1, Episode 2, “Ladies Room.”

26. Season 1, Episode 1, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

27. Season 1, Episode 1, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

28. Season 1, Episode 6, “Babylon.”

29. Season 1, Episode 6, “Babylon.”

30. Season 1, Episode 6, “Babylon.”

31. Season 1, Episode 6, “Babylon.”

32. Season 1, Episode 3, “Marriage of Figaro.”

33. Season 1, Episode 3, “Marriage of Figaro.”

34. Season 2, Episode 1, “For Those Who Think Young

35. William M. O’Barr. Culture and the Ad: Exploring Otherness in the World of Advertising. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994) 50.

36. Season 2, Episode 2, “Flight.”

37. Season 2, Episode 2, “Flight.”

38. Season 1, Episode 12, “Nixon vs. Kennedy.”

39. Season 3, Episode 3, “My Old Kentucky Home.”

40. Season 3, Episode 3, “My Old Kentucky Home.”

41. Season 3, Episode 5, “The Fog.”

42. Season 3, Episode 5, “The Fog.”

43. Season 2, Episode 11, “The Jet Set.”

44. Season 1, Episode 6, “Babylon.”

45. Season 1, Episode 6, “Babylon.”

47. Season 1, Episode 1, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

48. Season 1, Episode 1, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

49. Season 1, Episode 8, “The Hobo Code,” and Season 3, Episode 8, “Wee Small Hours.”

50. Season 3, Episode 8, “Wee Small Hours.”

51. Season 3, Episode 4, “The Arrangements.”

52. Season 3, Episode 4, “The Arrangements.”

53. Daniel D’Addario. “Salvatore Romano’s Vanishing Act” The Bygone Bureau, July 22, 2010.

54. Season 1, Episode 10, “Long Weekend.”

55. Season 1, Episode 10, “Long Weekend.”

56. Season 2, Episode 11, “The Jet Set.”

57. Season 2, Episode 11, “The Jet Set.”

58. Season 1, Episode 12, “Nixon Vs Kennedy.”

60. Season 2, Episode 2, “Flight 1.”

61. Season 2, Episode 2, “Flight 1.”

62. Season 2, Episode 2, “Flight 1.”

63. Season 1, Episode 4, “New Amsterdam.”

64. Season 1, Episode 4, “New Amsterdam.”

65. Season 1, Episode 11, “Indian Summer.”

66. Season 1, Episode 11, “Indian Summer.”