Mad Men, Creating a Perfect World on the Avenue of Dreams

by Paul Millward

Advertising is based on one thing: Happiness. It’s the smell of a new car. It’s freedom, from fear. It’s a billboard that screams the reassurance that, whatever you’re doing, it’s okay.

These are the words of Don Draper, the enigmatic advertising guru in Mad Men, America’s spellbinding TV drama series. Set within the glamorous world of New York’s Madison Avenue in the early sixties, Mad Menis one of the most perfectly realised TV dramas ever made. Scenes unfold in a slowly mesmerising rhythm of such elegance that it is easy to digest the often unsavoury behaviour of its characters and the dubious values they aspire to.

For those who dream of decadent high living with sartorial panache, the era in which Mad Menis set could be deceptively seductive. The drama has recreated this fascinating period with detailed perfection, ranging from the fabulous clothing to its authentic locations in New York.

Madison Avenue, running north-south through Midtown East in Manhattan, was the Mecca of the advertising world in the sixties, and is still today right at the centre of what remains for many quintessential New York. And the overriding activity which dominates the life of this district, and New York in general, is Business. Over one hundred of America’s leading corporations are located in New York, not to mention the thousands of smaller companies which form the core of the city’s economy.

It is in the streets surrounding Madison Avenue that the beating heart of New York’s business culture flourishes. They are teeming with executives indulging in excessive business lunches at opulent restaurants, aspiring entrepreneurs on high powered shopping trips to Bloomingdale’s and sharply dressed workers moving through the streets at high speed, sometimes briefly stopping at a club for a quick cocktail, before racing off to nearby Grand Central Terminal to get back to their cosy suburban homes in places like Connecticut.

But there is one intriguing difference between the business of the Advertising Industry itself and the businesses of the corporate giants it represents: advertising is fundamentally a creative process which often results in the production of a work of art. And the Madison Avenue advertisers in 1960s New York were creative artists and writers of the highest order.

In fact, advertising attracted conservative literary types who associated Madison Avenue with money and power as well as a vehicle for expressing their creativity.

Madison Avenue was a dream factory, the place where that rather nebulous concept The American Dream was given specific, concrete expression.

In Mad Men Don Draper is the dream weaver supreme, and it is at Sterling Cooper, the advertising agency he works for, that he creates his dreams for the aspiring American. It is where the dreams are produced, packaged and distributed to an American public at the dawn of the modern age of consumerism – the sixties.

Draper uses his prodigious literary skills to create adverts portraying a beautiful world where everything is perfect, everyone works for the good of all and a sunny optimism shines from every orifice. They could almost be the creation of a spiritual avatar desiring to bring truth and goodness to the world. But the beautiful dreams that Don creates are hollow. The sole function of the dreams are to cynically manipulate the emotions of the public and persuade them to buy whatever product he has been given to peddle, whether it be a cigarette or a candidate for the presidency, it’s all the same to these “mad men.”

However beautiful and artistically satisfying the dreams may be that Don creates they are not a reflection of his own heartfelt beliefs but instead an illusion to ensnare the unwary. The creative genius of Don Draper, ably assisted by his talented team at Sterling Cooper, is employed purely to enhance the profits of its clients and in so doing increase the profits of Sterling Cooper.

All the beautiful words, all the joy of life evoked, all the love and warmth expressed and all the comforting messages held within the dream exist solely to persuade the public to enter into a commercial transaction.

The hollowness of the advertisers’ work is then echoed by the hollowness of their personal lives. Under the surface of the cool and alluring characters that inhabit Mad Men, the series has gradually revealed, with imperceptible subtlety, the quiet desperation with which they live their internal lives, as they struggle to climb the corporate ladder and face the continual disappointments which this provokes.

The odious Pete Campbell becomes oddly sympathetic as he wrestles with thwarted ambition.  Peggy is a fascinating and complex woman, who is continuously compromised by the male-dominated culture she has entered. In Mad Men blatant sexism often erupts into outright misogyny which its female characters seem to endure without complaint in this pre-feminist era.

Don Draper is the charismatic, and at times arrogant, leading character of Mad Men who exerts a commanding presence both on screen and within the fictional world of Sterling Cooper. But as the drama has progressed Mad Men, with beautiful finesse, slowly exposes him for who he really is. Draper uses his adverts to construct a fictional world which is happy, safe and secure . . .

Mad Men depicts a culture in which business and pleasure are inextricably interwoven. Don Draper and the senior partner Roger Sterling have no choice but to indulge in hedonism, since entertaining the client is an essential element of making deals. They are irretrievably committed to an endless cycle of lunches, dinners and parties in the era of the infinite expense account. To reflect this accurately, a substantial proportion of the drama is filmed on location at the glamorous restaurants situated near Madison Avenue.

In 1961 Lutece was the best restaurant in New York and Don’s long suffering wife Betty is desperate for him to take her there, but he prefers to keep it for charming his clients instead. The real Lutece closed in 2004 but many Mad Men scenes are filmed inside elite restaurants which can be visited today. New York’s celebrated seafood restaurant, the Oyster Bar, situated on the lower floor level of Grand Central Terminal, has provided the setting for numerous Mad Men scenes.

Just around the corner from Grand Central on 44th street is Sardi’s, famous for its caricatures on the wall and its 16 ounce sirloin steaks. This much loved restaurant, popular with the show business community, has been used by Mad Men as the setting for Don’s initiation of another of his many sexual conquests.

The hard living lifestyle and the relentless pressure of keeping the client happy take its toll.

As Roger Sterling says in one episode, “The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them.”

The mad men sought to battle against the stress with constant drinking sessions in the office which spills over into further over indulgence when out with the clients. They are caught in a vicious circle of excess.

In fact Mad Men portrays all the characters as addicts who are relentlessly smoking and drinking their way through the working day. This is the sixties, but it is the pre-Beatles sixties, where the social conventions of the previous decades are still firmly intact. Grey flannel suits and skinny ties are the norm, women accept their subservient position as dutiful secretaries and smoking is not considered an evil. JFK is president and all is well with the world. But lurking just around the corner is the assassination of Kennedy, followed by the Beatles invasion, the civil rights movement and Vietnam.

Don is unintentionally exposed to a very different world by Midge, a mistress who happens to be a bohemian. When Don is taken to the Gaslight Cafe by the free loving Midge in Greenwich Village, the heartland of the beatnik community in New York, he is clearly a man behind enemy lines. His slick suited veneer is stunningly out of step with the inhabitants of this pre-hippie haunt, the venue in which a young Bob Dylan served his apprenticeship.

Like Don Draper, Dylan Thomas was another troubled creative genius. And also like Draper, Dylan Thomas was a dream merchant, as are all the poets. In fact, all writers are dream merchants and they are all trapped in the same commercial conundrum, whether they are Shakespeare or mad men in 1960s New York. No matter how artistically accomplished a writer may be, he has to earn his living, he has to sell his product, and it is then one small step for the artist of integrity to begin cynically creating stories which will appeal to the masses.

Draper’s words are inspired purely by the allure of money – firstly to create profit for Sterling Cooper and secondly to create profit for his clients. But sometimes great art can transcend the petty motives of the protagonists concerned.

Just occasionally, the dreams that advertisers create are so beautifully conceived that they linger in the mind long after the product they purport to be selling has been forgotten. Somehow, out of their cold and mercenary hearts, miraculously pours an image which is so full of pure magical bliss, it genuinely makes the world a better place to live in.

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