[Marxism] Scott McLemee on Mad Men

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jul 21 07:09:31 MDT 2010

Intellectual Affairs
Lifestyles of Mad Men
July 21, 2010
By Scott McLemee

The first three seasons of "Mad Men" (the fourth begins on Sunday) 
were set in a world recognizable from The Hidden Persuaders, Vance 
Packard’s landmark work of pop sociology from 1957. Reviving the 
spirit of muckraking to probe the inner workings of postwar 
affluence, Packard reported on how the ad agencies on Madison 
Avenue used psychological research to boost the manipulative power 
of their imagery and catchphrases.

To prime the consumer market, habits and attitudes left over from 
the Great Depression had to be liquidated. Desire must be set free 
-- or at least educated into enough confidence to be assertive, 
Advertising meant selling not just a product but a dream. There 
was, for example, the famous ad campaign portraying women who 
found themselves in public, in interesting situations while 
wearing little more their Maidenform undergarments. The idea was 
to lodge the product in the potential consumer’s unconscious by 
associating it with a common dream situation.

But my sense is that "Mad Men" is poised to enter a new, 
post-Packardian phase. At the end of the third season, several 
characters left the established firm of Sterling Cooper and set 
out to create their own advertising “shop” – all of this not very 
long after the Kennedy assassination. Trauma seldom stalls the 
wheels of commerce for long. And we know, with hindsight, that 
American mass culture was just about to undergo a sudden, swift 
de-massification – the proliferation, over the next few years, of 
ever more sharply defined consumer niches and episodic subcultures.

Stimulating consumer desire by making an end run around the 
superego was no longer the name of the game. The new emphasis took 
a different form. It is best expressed by the term “lifestyle” -- 
which, as far as I can tell, was seldom used before the mid-60s, 
except as a piece of jargon from the Adlerian school of 
psychoanalytic revisionism.

Alfred Adler had coined the term to describe the functioning of 
the inferiority complex. (“Inferiority complex” was another 
Adler-ism; this was the concept that precipitated his break with 
Freud in the 1910s.) The neurotic, according to Adler, transformed 
his inferiority complex into a comprehensive structure of psychic 
defense – a whole pattern of life, designed to avoid its more 
disagreeable realities as much as possible.

Obviously “lifestyle” would acquire other meanings. But arguably 
that original sense is always there, below the surface. What looks 
like an identity or a niche has its shadow -- its underside of 

I don’t know how much Alfred Adler the creators of "Mad Men" have 
read. But they have certainly tuned into this dimension of its 
central characters.

Don and Peggy have crafted lives for themselves that express, not 
who they are, but who they want to be. (Or in Don’s case, who he 
wants to be taken to be. We’re talking double-encrypted personal 
inauthenticity.) They have turned feelings of inferiority and 
powerlessness into ambition -- rising to positions in advertising 
that enable them to elicit and channel those feelings in the consumer.

Pete (easily the most unlikable figure on the show) is the walking 
embodiment of status anxiety and a borderline sociopath. His only 
saving grace is that he is too ineptly Machiavellian to succeed at 
any scheme he might hatch. Unable to advance within the hierarchy 
at Sterling Cooper, he walked away to help start the new agency.

We’ve seen that he has one forward-looking idea: Pete realizes 
that there is an African-American market out there that 
advertisers could target. Nobody at Sterling Cooper had any 
interest in crafting campaigns to run in Jet magazine. But any 
sense that his role might be “progressive” runs up against the 
most salient thing about him: he is a hollow man, incapable of 
empathy but ready to turn the way the wind blows.

Vance Packard portrayed Madison Avenue as a place staffed by 
people who were competent and lucid, if not particularly 
scrupulous. Packard intended The Hidden Persuaders as social 
criticism, but the book participated in the technocratic 
imagination. It assumed that advertising’s best and brightest both 
possessed knowledge and could apply it, steering the marketplace 
by remote control.

Against this, "Mad Men" has been slowly building up a 
counternarrative. Its first season was set in 1960 -- the final 
year of the Eisenhower administration. The third season closed 
just after an assassin’s shots ended what would, in short order, 
be recalled as Camelot. A few scattered references have been made 
to a war underway in Southeast Asia.

Trust in the foresight of technocrats is about to take a hard 
fall. And the center of gravity in the advertising world is about 
to shift from masterful “hidden manipulators” to figures who can 
ride the wave of cultural upheaval because they are skilled at 
manufacturing niches for themselves.

The characters running the new agency are not confident engineers 
of consumer desire but – albeit in a special sense -- confidence 
artists. Not that they are swindlers. But they know how to 
fabricate a self and sell it to other people.

With its fourth season, "Mad Men" is on the verge of finally 
becoming a series about the Sixties. It is also a work of 
historical fiction about where consumerism came from, and what it 
was like. I suppose the past tense is unavoidable. Over the next 
decade, to judge by recent trends, people will need a leap of the 
imagination to remember the Golden Age of Lifestyles.

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