[Marxism] Scott McLemee on Mad Men
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jul 21 07:09:31 MDT 2010
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
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
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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