The 70s Were Unkind to Real-Life Mad Men

Reading the scholarly literature on the Watergate-era backlash against advertising

don draper thumb 1970s.jpg

TO THE NAKED EYE, IT MAY APPEAR THAT: On AMC's Mad Men, the creative team at slick Manhattan advertising agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce lives the 1960s American dream: They earn a generous, glamorous living by putting their stylish spin on consumer-good marketing campaigns.

BUT ACCORDING TO SOME PEOPLE WHO THOUGHT REALLY, REALLY HARD ABOUT THIS: If Matthew Weiner's famously history-conscious show carries its storylines through to the end of the 1960s and the dawn of the 1970s—as photos from the set of Season 6, which premieres Sunday, suggest it will—the outlook could get very grim, very fast for the posh, large-living execs of SCDP. In real life, the relationship between the public and the advertising industry hit the skids in the 1970s. Public opinion turned negative toward consumer marketing, and a widespread crackdown on false and misleading ads ensued.

Public surveys conducted periodically by Gallup and other agencies from the 1930s through the 1980s showed that distrust and disapproval toward commercial advertising spiked in the years between 1970 and 1979, according to a 1994 Journal of Public Policy & Marketing article by John E. Calfee and Debra Jones Ringold. Studies by Harris and Associates, Inc., meanwhile, found in 1976 that "a majority of respondents felt ... that most or all of television advertising was seriously misleading," even though feedback had been evenly mixed just a decade before.

Perhaps it was Watergate-era pessimism seeping in, or maybe just the post-1960s hangover causing all the grumbling. There may be no single reason for the sudden downturn in attitudes toward advertising—but remember that magical "everybody else's tobacco is poisonous, but Lucky Strikes are toasted" boardroom scene set in 1960, or that mega-sexy 1967 ad campaign for the notoriously unreliable Jaguar E-Type? Pitches like those may not fare so well once the public grows skeptical of the marketing kings of Madison Avenue.

Throughout the 1960s, according to Calfee and Ringold, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission had been widely criticized for paying little attention to misleading ads on television and in print. But in 1969, Ralph Nader published his controversial Nader Report on the Federal Trade Commission, a project in which Nader and seven law-student volunteers exposed the general laziness of the FTC in protecting consumers from false advertisements and fraud. Their report condemned suggestive ads, deceptive or false claims in TV commercials and print ads, and the diversion of attention away from unappealing information (such as the unpleasant side effects of a drug, or the health risks of cigarettes). In order to ensure that consumer deception was exposed, disciplined, and fixed, Nader and his team of "Nader's Raiders" called for "alert and extensive monitoring operations with pre-screening by expert engineers, doctors, and professionals."

As a result, "a much-remarked revolution in FTC advertising regulation began in 1970," according to Calfee and Ringold. "Changes included a thorough staff reorganization, new litigation procedures, and large budgetary increases." The FTC started making the rounds in several industries, demanding and inspecting backup materials from marketers that could prove the validity of their advertised claims—so in the world of Mad Men, that likely means no more stunts like that smirking, intentionally vague Relax-a-Cizor pitch after 1970.

Changes in legislation backed the Don Drapers of the 1970s even further into a corner. In the decades prior, the law had required the FTC to prove an advertisement was making false statements to pursue legal action. But after a new advertising substantiation doctrine was instituted in 1972, the FTC was only tasked with proving that the advertiser had failed to prove its claim was reasonably substantiated—in other words, it became easier for the commission to punish marketers for fleecing consumers, and the onus of accountability shifted to the advertisers themselves.

AND ...  ANYTHING ELSE? Yup. According to Ad Age, advertising aimed at children was a particularly fervent concern. "TV advertisers were spending millions of dollars annually pitching products to children," the publication explained in 2003. "Empirical research suggested that children younger than eight generally could not distinguish between a commercial and the main program fare. The data suggested this remained true until about sixth grade." (Ads like Michael Ginsberg's policeman-getting-pelted-in-the-face-with-a-snowball idea for Sno Ball, then, would face much tougher scrutiny in the 1970s than they would the decade before.)

Women in Boston formed the activist group Action for Children's Television, and in time they successfully forced controversial vitamin ads appealing to kids off the air and succeeded in instituting a requirement that TV commercials portray the sizes and speeds of toys in ways that children could understand accurately. And in 1974, according to the FTC's website, the Children's Advertising Review Unit at the Better Business Bureau was created to better regulate kid-targeted marketing—taking into account their "limited capacity to evaluate the credibility of information they receive."

AND THUS, WE CAN CONCLUDE THAT: Up to this point, things have gone pretty swimmingly for Don Draper and company; they enjoy almost unchecked privilege in their creative pursuit of consumers' cash. But if the show's timeline keeps marching on in the direction those double-breasted jackets and polyester pants hint it might, a few friendly neighborhood FTC officers could soon become cast regulars.