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Preetam Kaushik

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Mad Men Now and Then: Is it Still About Men After All?

Posted: 5/04/2012 17:20

Advertising in the 60s era was all about hard hitting selling of the product, manoeuvring consumers into buying products. The undertones of sexuality, independence, even if it raised your self-esteem for associating with the products, may not have appeared like undertones at all. They probably were explicit expressions of depicting who you are through what you wear and carry, smoke or drink.

Such was the power of early advertising that made products speak about the people who used them. The Maidenform Bra ad, which may be considered as a launching pad for 'feminism' of the era or at least the embodiment of the movement may just be one product in question that demanded that depiction.However, there were many other advertisements of that time which turned to sexuality when selling something very masculine as well. This is perhaps where the undertones of the issues of the time were explored. If there is an equivalent of that form of advertising today, it is probably called 'aspirational'.

However, advertising moved on in 60s to reflect other moods in the society. 'Counter Culture' was one of those and Doyle, Dane, Bernbach(DDB) used that approach to launch campaigns for their clients such as for 'Volkswagen Car' which was all about thinking 'small' in the era that had its theme routed in "the bigger, the better". The focus shifted to consumer engagement and identifying the fact that consumers differ from each other. David Ogilvy' however rocked marketing world of his times by bringing in market research to the forefront in the advertising world. The times changed then.

However, this is the era of tweet 'followers', Facebook 'likes and dislikes' and 'iTune downloads' and all that is part and parcel of social media. Advertising has come a long way down to individual consumer's word of mouth but in full public view. It is even difficult to imagine how the future of advertising will pan out. Probably, by users giving testimony of a product on 'You tube'? 'Volkwagen'TV Commercial in 2011 was all about number of "You tube" hits even before it was launched.

'Mad Men', the period drama that has been increasingly adding viewership to its base for over four seasons in United States captured the attention of maximum ever viewership this season. The drama that has its audience enchanted for its fifth season this March is set in the 60s and issues that defined the era. 'Mad Men' highlights what was taboo then but existed as closely guarded secrets but only speaking through the characters and their struggles in their lives. The advertising world through which the drama enfolds also brings alive the real life ads of those times and their making. The question whether the series will have enough steam to fuel its audience's interest is not a relevant one. What discussions it generates in contemporary world is what should be intriguing.

The series highlights some of what is accepted in contemporary world such as drinking and smoking, and something that changed our world, feminism and fight against racism, and some things our society still struggles against such as adultery and homophobia.

The depiction of characters, men and women, their power struggles may neither be as age old as it appears nor as irrelevant. Is that why the Facebook page for the series has 1, 958, 052 likes and 131, 467 talking about it. With thousands of followers on tweet, real life contests based on the show sponsored by "Banana Republic" and quizzes like "How Mad Are You" unquestionably talks about the popularity of the show. The website of " Mad Men" has a personality test, that has questions on a sexy stranger eyeing you and your reaction to it, a nosy acquaintance, about a co-worker, spending your lunchtime, knowing information about some co-worker that you need not have known, and when do you have your first drink in the day. The results whether you are Don or Joan, can of course be shared on your 'facebook' page. On the "Mad Men" webpage, you find a 'cocktail guide' for viewers. There is also a 'Sterling Cooper' Job interview page, that encourages you to find out if you think you have what it takes to be hired. The advertising of the show itself and the social media era that defines the airing of the show is in stark contrast to the advertising world of the yesteryears. Who could have thought then that there could be a campaign called saving Mad Men from Ad Men which talks about saving the series from two more minutes of commercial?

How drinking, smoking, feminism, sexism, adultery, homophobia and racism are viewed today also provides the younger adults a window to the way the society evolved. Some critiques find it painful to watch the power struggles of men and women of that era. It is particularly the depiction of the women, and in advertising world which may appear sadder than reality. Despite such changed position of women in society, women do face glass ceiling and glass wall and they can easily identify those struggles that are depicted then. However, what is most interesting is that whatever the issues that are depicted, they are not through some overriding narrative, but only through the subtle struggles in everyday lives of the characters. It can also be intriguing for young people to relive the past to understand the current and future. However, it may be downright nostalgic for the older generation.

That 'Mad Men' won critical acclaim over its last four seasons is not surprising at all. Primetime 'Emmy award' for outstanding drama series, Golden Globe Award for best television series, Screen Actors guild award for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a drama series all talks about the research that has gone into writing the script of the series. Ratings in 2010 are better than in 2009, and viewership has increased year after year. While it may run for only two more seasons, in 2010, it got Cable networks one of the highest rated original broadcasts of all times. The dramatic part is that the viewership of adult group jumped up by 71% to a count of 1.2 million viewers in 2010. The viewership of premier this year has been 3.50 million people.

What the series ends up doing is probably reviving interest in the dialogue on issues that are not as significant but nevertheless exist in our society. Replaying the everyday nuances of the chauvinistic society then brings to the focus what happens now. Is the 'power struggle' that existed in yesteryears over now? Is it still about the 'Mad Men' only? Opinions would vary on that question, but times have changed.

The most relevant question for the advertising world would be if the need for "Mad Men" or perhaps "Mad Women" would remain as strong as it was in the past. With so much focus on 'consumer' and 'consumer's opinion' about the product, will the power that was in the hands of "Mad Men" remain there? Is the 'advertising' world progressing towards reducing the power they always possessed. Or is it about just changing the medium? While that question may linger on, that it is about "Mad Men" alone may not be a fact that the younger and future generations would identify with.

 

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