Are the ad man's campaigns really all that impressive?
Don Draper is a creative genius. It's a premise Mad Men viewers have been reminded of constantly during the show's four seasons. Colleagues and competitors repeatedly use that word to describe his work, and the show rests on the idea that Don's ability to wow clients with brilliant advertisements gives his firm a competitive advantage. An episode structure often employed by the show's writers begins with a client demanding a new ad campaign and ends with Don impressing said client during a presentation in which he unveils a new idea that goes above and beyond their expectations.
But the idea that Don is the most brilliant man on Madison Avenue seems ludicrous. The fictional advertising campaigns he and his team of copywriters develop are, like much of the real advertising produced in the 1950s and 1960s, incredibly dull. They lack the over-the-top irony and absurdist humor that is prevalent in advertising today. At the time Mad Men is set, real ad firms were developing innovative campaigns that would end up changing people's perception of what constitutes great advertising. In one episode, Don and his colleagues sit in his office looking at Volkswagen's famous "Lemon" ad that used irony to sell a small car whose strange aesthetic was different from the cars American companies were producing. The tagline was a clever play on the meaning of "lemon" as a car that's a dud and the idea that "plum" is something to be desired: "We pluck the lemons; you get the plums." The ad is regarded as a landmark piece of work, but Don is unambiguous about his distaste for Volkswagen's approach. He looks at the print ad and says, "I don't know what I hate about it the most: the ad or the car," essentially drawing a line of demarcation between the type of work he does and the type of work that at that time was forward-thinking.
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Don's approach to advertising, by contrast, is straightforward and devoid of humor. Take his proposed campaign for a Kodak slide projector, which he pitches during what is arguably the show's most famous scene. While giving a presentation to executives from Eastman Kodak, Don waxes poetic about the alluring power of nostalgia. He fills up the slide projector with old family photos and says that the device, which he christens "The Carousel," has the power to transport the owner back in time and connect him or her with old memories that still carry emotional weight. During the scene somber music plays in the background; a colleague tears up and leaves the room. The executives are amazed, and Sterling Cooper's ends up winning the account.
When viewed through the lens of the current advertising landscape and its silly spokesmen, from the Geico Gecko to the most interesting man in the world, that scene seems dated and somewhat maudlin. But that is the tone all of Don's campaigns take. Can you imagine his Glo Coat commercial, which wins him a Clio award in season four, ever appearing on television today? Even if the aesthetic was updated, the sincere tone of that commercial would seem strange to consumers today. That same sincerity informs the campaigns he develops season after season—Lucky Strike: "It's Toasted"; Hilton: "It's the same in every language." Irony is not a part of Don's advertising lexicon. He chooses to work with straightforward emotion and often uses the power of nostalgia as the base of his work.
Don's purported genius, it seems, lies not in his innovative use of irony, but in his ability to understand the way people respond to advertising. Though Draper disdains the ironic humor that was on the cutting edge of advertising in his day, the show does hint that his ads are progressive in their own way. They seek to shape consumers' desires rather than merely reflect them. Early in season four, Don gets in a heated argument with a female consumer researcher the firm has hired to help with an ad campaign for Pond's cold cream. The research she conducts suggests women would best respond to a campaign that insinuates that using the cold cream will lead to marriage. Draper rejects the idea, saying it reeks of thinking prevalent in the 1920s. He goes on to make the provocative argument that great advertising doesn't reflect conscious desires so much as stir latent ones and push consumers to change. As Julia Turner wrote in Slate:
This is, if you think about it, a somewhat profound case for the significance of the work they do at SCDP. Perhaps a forward-looking ad agency—one that rejects tame two-piece bathing suits and single girls desperate for a ring simply because the ideas feel square—contributes as much to social change as the most impassioned activist, if inadvertently.
This paean to the power of advertising—the notion that in addition to moving product it can cause a consumer group to think about itself in different and, in this situation, more progressive ways—feels inconsistent with Don's character as a whole. I'm not sure that I buy into the notion that Don, a womanizer and drunk, is actually interested in using his work to change people's perceptions about themselves.
Still, this scene is not the first time the show goes out of the way to emphasize the progressive side of his personality. The first time we meet Don in the pilot episode he's sitting in a crowded bar, crafting copy for a potential cigarette ad, when he asks a black bus boy about the type of cigarette he prefers. To all of the other white males populating the bar, the black man is an afterthought, and as the two characters converse a white waiter asks Don if the black man is bothering him, a question Don dismisses. The message is clear: Unlike the men who surround him, Don harbors no qualms about pushing social barriers. He also has the moxie to promote Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), a gifted secretary, to the position of copywriter. This promotion causes ripples in the male-dominated workplace of Sterling Cooper, but that doesn't stop Don from treating Peggy's work with more respect than the work of her male colleagues. Even though he has a tendency to demand a lot from her and is more than willing to take credit for some of the work she produces, their relationship is one of mentor and pupil. He appears to be grooming her for a future role like his own.
Of course, Don's progressive tendencies stop whenever business is threatened. When he discovers that a co-worker is a closeted homosexual, he initially offers a bit of sympathy. But when that co-worker's unwillingness to engage in a tryst with a prominent male client threatens the business, he dresses down the co-worker with a tirade that includes the phrase "you people." In season four, Peggy expresses displeasure at the fact that Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce is doing business with an auto-parts manufacturer that is unfriendly to the civil rights movement. Don tells her that it is their job to get people to buy from that manufacturer, not to convince the client that civil rights is a noble cause. On Madison Avenue social progress can be promoted via cutting-edge advertising but when forced to choose between the pursuit of a dollar and the promotion of ideals the former always wins.
It seems as though Mad Men's writers are defining Don's talents as a creative director not in the sense that his work is particularly innovative or forward-looking but that he is a brilliant salesman. His sincerity and personal touch play well when he is face to face with a client. His genius is visceral rather than cerebral, and his superior instincts allow him to sell his ideas, and himself, more convincingly than anyone else on the show.
Don's approach to advertising is also one of the reasons why he is such an appealing anti-hero in spite of all his flaws. The show's lack of irony differentiates it from most of mass culture today, which as writers such as Lee Siegel and Chuck Klosterman have argued, is so thoroughly saturated with ironic humor that it's often difficult to discern what is serious and what is a joke. But in the fictionalized world of Mad Men, such confusion doesn't exist. We know that Don is deadly serious about is work, and his straightforward manner feels refreshing. The audience is supposed to take him and his work seriously. Part of the nostalgic hook of Mad Men goes beyond the look and feel of the 1960s; the show also transports us back to a time when irony wasn't quite as rampant, when cultural messages, including advertisements, were to the point. Perhaps audiences accept Don's genius because it's comforting to revisit a time when irony wasn't quite as common. Like "The Carousel" Mad Men allows us to step back and remember when straightforwardness was the norm, even when the show's commercial breaks contain irony-laced advertisements that we are now supposed to accept as cutting-edge.