Why 'Mad Men' makes me mad

By George Parker, brandrepublic.com, Wednesday, 06 August 2008 08:00AM

I have to confess, I have this love-hate relationship with 'Mad Men', which just started its second season over here in the US, writes George Parker.

After its first season the show won critical acclaim and a couple of Golden Globes for best TV drama and best actor, Jon Hamm, the guy playing Don Draper, Sterling Cooper's severely screwed up creative director, who is presented as some kind of reincarnation of Leonardo da Vinci.

As Siskel and Ebert, the big-time movie critics here in the US used to say... "It's a one thumb up, one thumb down" kind of show.

First, it's very well written, in terms of plot structure, even though it smacks of excess melodrama. I do though, have problems with some of the over-the-top dialogue.

In the scene where Don has taken Rachel Menkin, the Jewish owner of the retail store (probably modelled after Bonwit & Teller, which sadly, is no longer in existence) to a bar to apologise on behalf of the agency, he delivers a series of really limp dick lines, culminating in... "Love is a word invented by guys like me to sell nylons."

Oh for Christ's sake, even when I was a snot nose kid of 25 in my first Madison Avenue job, I could think up better lines than that to pull birds.

Obviously they did a major job in recreating the office atmosphere, clothing, hair do's, furnishings and office equipment.

Just one nit pick, the first series takes place in 1960 and the secretaries are all pounding away on IBM Selectrics. They didn't hit the market until 1961.

In the second series, taking place in 1962, they proudly roll in the very latest in office productivity, a Xerox 914 copier. These were introduced in 1959 and any self respecting agency wouldn't have waited three long years to get one and start billing clients for all those 17.65% marked-up copies.

My first job in the States was in 1964 at Benton & Bowles, New York, so I'm one of the few people who've watched this series that can speak from the experience of actually having lived through it.

A lot of idiots have complained about all the very non-PC, smoking, drinking and screwing taking place. That's as dumb as complaining about lions eating Christians in Toga Flicks. However, even though we all smoked like chimneys, we never smoked in elevators as one of the young AE's did. That was a no-no along with not taking your hat off if there was a lady in the elevator.

Yes we all drank like fishes, but we did it at lunch time and after work. No one had drink trays and ice buckets like the Don Draper character. And no one poured their first Scotch with an Alka Seltzer at nine in the morning as the closeted gay AD, Salvatore did.

Even when I worked at Warwick & Legler, which was the main Seagram Booze agency, we'd get ploughed during our three martini lunches at the "Ground Floor" in the CBS building, but we never cracked open a bottle in the office.

Plus, you never served drinks in the middle of a presentation as they did with the Rachel Menken character. And in the over 40 years I've been in the business, I've never heard anyone refer to themselves as "Mad Men".

Final nit pick... The scene were Don Draper throws DR Guttman's research in the trash is dead wrong. In the late 50s and early 60s, all the major agencies went apeshit for motivational research and fell in love with practitioners of the dark arts, such as Dr Ernst Dichter and others.

Don Draper would have been all over her research like a hound in heat. Remember the opening scene in 'Putney Swope' with the Mensa guy? If you don't, go buy it right now, it's the best film ever made about the agency business.

But my biggest problem is not that 'Mad Men' is written to show that in the ad biz of the 60s, all the male characters are testosterone-fuelled egomaniacs, the women are raging nymphomaniacs, and deep down inside they're all terribly insecure.

What really gets up my nose is that in common with 90% of the movies ever made about advertising, they just don't quite get their heads around what it's like to work in an agency, whether it's in 1960 or 2008.

Yeah, they had a couple of retired hacks as consultants, but not one of the writers on the show have ever worked in any form of advertising, let alone an agency (plus they weren't even born when this series is supposed to take place.)

Don Draper reminds me of those Doris Day advertising movies, where she's the account executive, writer, art director, and even shoots the photography.

It was never like that, even in the 60s -- there were writer and art director teams, contrary to the impression viewers would get after watching the shenanigans at Sterling Cooper.

My first art director partner in 1964 was the legendary Gene Federico. It wasn't down to one Leonardo da Vinci guy in a corner office who pulled miracles out of his arse. And, even if he was Leonardo, anyone showing up for a creative presentation for the agency's largest client without a single idea would have been out on his bum within minutes.

Coincidentally, when Don finally comes up with the "Toasted" line for the Lucky Strike client, someone should have whispered in his ear they'd been using that particular claim since 1917.

Having said all that, I'll keep watching to see if the sex gets better. But I'll Tivo it to kill the 16 ads I don't want to sit through in a 60-minute show! After all, who wants to see a bunch of lousy ads when you're trying to watch a program about advertising?

George Parker blogs in the UK at Madscam and in the US at Adscam. His latest book is '"MadScam" Kick-ass advertising without the Madison Avenue price tag!'. His new book, 'The Ubiquitous Persuaders'. will be published in the autumn.

This article was first published on brandrepublic.com

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