Mad Men returns

Cite this Article
Larry Ribstein, Mad Men returns, Truth on the Market (July 23, 2010),

I’ve described Mad Men as a wonderful illustration of my theory about how business is portrayed in film (here it’s television, but much of the theory still holds):

[A]rtists are inclined to view business as not just different from but antithetical to what they do. Artists (at least modern artists) are into self-expression. In other words, they’re inherently selfish. Business people, on the other hand, are into selling. This means they have to discern other people’s wants and cater to them. Artists call that selling out.

Mad Men has interesting insights into an important aspect of business – advertising:

[Protagonist Don] Draper’s artistic crew tend to have a pedestrian approach to selling – figure out what the consumer wants, and promote that. What makes Draper seem brilliant is that he’s always a step ahead: figure out what people want to want – that is, their dreams about themselves – and sell that. For example, to sell an airline, Draper’s guys figure that men fly, men like sex in the sky, so show them stewardesses’ short skirts. Draper says men want to think of themselves as family guys. So show the little girl asking, “what did you bring me daddy.” Draper sells Kodak’s Carousel the same way — as a device for showing a gauzy version of the lives men would like to think they’re living with their families.

The problem is that the show gives the artists’ side of this – that there’s something fishy, essentially evil and manipulative about advertising. Indeed, in my theory filmmakers would consider advertising at the root of all business evil. But as I said in the above post:

Advertising increases aggregate demand, so we’re all richer. Isn’t it great that somebody’s helping us figure out what to want? And Draper, at least, often shows us a better version of ourselves – sort of like religion.

This debate has important policy implications. After all, much of the current push for more consumer financial regulation is that financial advertising lies. Films have helped pre-condition the electorate to believe this message (though apparently not to be more careful in reading disclosures).

The show is also interesting because of its insights about how firms operate. In my post about the season-ender last November I discussed what the story about the break-up of an ad agency revealed about ad-agency contracts compared to law firms. I concluded:

By the end of the show, individual freedom has prevailed over firms. The evil CEO of the British parent has been vanquished. But will everybody be happy in their new world of instability? I guess we’ll see in Season 4.

Well, Season 4 is here, and the WSJ’s Dorothy Rabinowitz discusses it, focusing on the show’s vivid social commentary. On this I’ll only add that the show has the structure of a situation comedy: the characters are trapped in a folly that the viewer understands but is helpless to do anything about. In this case the folly is our own recent past. The interesting thing is what it tells us about our current illusions.