Lifestyles of Mad Men

An acclaimed dramatic series about the world of advertising returns to TV. Scott McLemee glances at the historical context.

July 21, 2010

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 insecurity.

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.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top