Lest anyone think that I oppose advertising, I wish to correct that assumption. I can enjoy print and TV advertising when it’s innovative and attention-getting. A 2012 Bloomberg Businessweek book review of Jane Maas’s Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the ’60s and Beyond (conforming to a consensus that it was hastily thrown together to exploit the popularity of “Mad Men”) notes that
Advertising has one aim: to pitch a product as something desirable. There are different ways to move the merchandise—this car or that cereal or this beer will make you feel younger, slimmer, sexier. This may be the only thing the Pillsbury Doughboy and David Beckham have in common: They mean to persuade you that dinner rolls and cotton briefs, respectively, are something you need—or better yet, crave.
Well, no, not necessarily “crave,” want, or even need. Vance Packard and his thesis in The Hidden Persuaders (published in 1957) to the contrary notwithstanding, I can watch and enjoy a car or cereal or clothing commercial without being hypnotized into “craving” the product. I think I speak for most TV watchers. Advertising is a means of letting you know that a product exists. The keys to good advertising are getting your attention and persuading you of the value of the product. An ad can be entertaining, bland, crude, or a bucket of lead. I have an envelope somewhere at home fat with some of my favorite print ads, mostly from the 60’s and 70’s. I remember the last Benson & Hedges cigarette TV ads, and also the smarmy Northwest Airlines TV ad in which the captain announces to passengers a plane-wide no-smoking policy, and all the actors cheer.
“Mad Men” is a collectivist effort copasetic with the anti-individualism theme of the series. To date, eighteen directors and counting have directed all the episodes, several many times, including Matthew Weiner, the genius behind the series. Two principal cast members of the series have directed episodes, Jon Hamm and John Slattery. By the end of Season Six, there will have been 78 episodes. There is a bewildering trainload of writers. So many hands in the pot accounts for the rudderless direction of what I call a super-sized soap opera.
In “Villains, Victims, and Lies,” I focused on how lies are a crucial element and driving force of the series. They are important from a leftist and naturalist literary perspective, because without the constant evasions, lying, and deceptions – of each of the principal characters to each other, and internally to themselves – there would be no story and no overall plot/theme, which is: Man is a weak creature who must fake reality for others and for himself in pursuit of an illusory happiness promoted by a capitalist society that worships materialism and money.
In keeping with Marxist dogma, the wealthy men of “Mad Men” just can’t help themselves. They are the bourgeoisie pawns of an evolving dialectical materialism, and so their arrogance and duplicity, which cannot be forgiven, come naturally to them. The class these “Mad Men” hucksters represent will be overthrown because their greed, avarice, selfishness, and corruption are internally self-destructive. Ultimately, when the revolution comes, they will be either sent to the guillotine or to reeducation camps to get their minds straight. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Pol Pot, the Castro brothers, Hugo Chavez, Bill Ayers, Obama, oddly named North Korean dictators, and the Clintons all said so. Also, Osama bin Laden and his heirs in terrorism.
That’s the slick but unspoken Marxist premise, the “hidden persuader,” and schedule of coming events underlying the series. The “exploiters” will be exploited in turn and trounced by “the people.” Don Draper, Pete Campbell, and Roger Sterling will all get their dialectical comeuppance.
In “Mad Men” this Hegelian process eventually leads to the depiction of the “natural” intrusion of the civil rights movement and the invasion of the hippy-dippy, pot-smoking “counter culture,” of the rise of feminism and gays and lesbians coming out of their closets. Fans not entirely satisfied with the Progressivism of the series are watching it closely to see if Don Draper and his partners and the 60s culture dissolve into their deterministic futures. And soon all the monarchs of mendacity will be shown the door. It’s “historical materialism,” you see. Resistance is futile.
The dogma is there, ever so skillfully worked into the characters’ words, actions, and personas. A correspondent objected to the length of my “Villains, Victims, and Lies” column, saying just that Mad Men is just a rubbishy remake of Lover Come Back, the 1961 Doris Day and Rock Hudson comedy that’s also set in the advertising world, and in which an advertising man must create a product that’s already been advertised.
One question about the creators of “entertainment” such as “Mad Men” which I have never seen asked by other critics is: Why are they stuck in that particular creative rut? Why are stories that are pro-individualism, pro-happiness, and pro-freedom impossible to them to conceive of and develop? Is the world so dark and conspiratorial in their epistemological and moral outlook that baneful tales of deceit and corruption are all they can produce? In the end, it is a rut of their own choosing. But what causes them to choose a rut so often traveled by their predecessors that it is now as deep and muddy and appealing as a World War I frontline trench?
I offer one explanation: An orthodoxy no one dares challenge, the orthodoxy of the Left. It is not necessarily the only one, but it is an important one. Like the typical Islamic terrorist or suicide bomber – and like Marx himself – Marxists and Progressives and socialists of all the varieties of pink as a rule hale from well-to-do families and circumstances. Their penchant for “revolution” reflects a guilt for their “privileged” upbringing and comfort.
Weiner, for example, attended the Park School of Baltimore, an upper-class school modeled on John Dewey’s educational philosophy, and then the equally exclusive Harvard School for Boys (now Harvard-Westlake, coeducational) in Los Angeles. Then he went to Wesleyan University, and finally to the University of Southern California’s Film School.
The Wall Street Journal interviewed Weiner about the impact of “Mad Men” and its cinematic antecedents. Weiner confessed several influences:
“Rod Serling’s ‘Patterns‘  had a deep impact on me,” Mr. Weiner recalled. “So did a movie called ‘Cash McCall’ , with James Garner. When I created Don Draper, in my mind I saw Garner, whose ease I always liked. People describe Don as an antihero, but he is not—at least not to me. Jon Hamm reminded me of Gregory Peck, who starred in ‘Mirage’ , about a businessman who’s lost his memory. That was definitely there when I was writing ‘Mad Men.’ And I shouldn’t leave out ‘Dear Heart ,’ with Glenn Ford and Geraldine Page. Another big one for me is ‘The Bachelor Party’ , with E.G. Marshall and Jack Warden.”
The impact of these pictures, none of which depicts an ad agency, can be felt in various ways on “Mad Men,” including its ethos and mise-en-scène. But the show’s defining dichotomy originates elsewhere. “It seemed there was this great story to tell of the battle between the creative and the commercial,” Mr. Weiner said. “That’s why I picked advertising, because it’s a great way to ask this big question: Is there a job where you can be creative and also make money?”
Yes, there are jobs in which one can be creative and make money. So Weiner trashes advertising, where one can make money by being creative. His seemingly eclectic cinematic influences, all of which were produced before he was born in1965, are not so eclectic. In all those movies deceit, evasion, and faking reality are contributing themes.
Serling’s “Patterns,” for example, is a teleplay about the cruel and heartless tactics of a business owner, played by Everett Sloane, to force an executive colleague to resign, instead of firing him. In the end, he causes the man, played by Ed Begley, to die of a heart attack. In the climax, Sloane delivers a brief and nominally correct philosophy of business. Begley’s newly-hired replacement, a younger man played by Richard Kiley, expresses disgust with Sloane’s tactics, and accuses Sloane of being inhuman and without decency. But, instead of quitting as he had originally intended, he agrees to stay on and swears to exact vengeance on Sloane, and become as “cruel and heartless” as his new enemy.
The politics and corporate ambiance depicted in the one-hour show are recreated in “Mad Men.”
I am supposing that creators like Weiner see themselves as modern day moral heirs of Charles Dickens and Jacob Riis, both champions of the poor and the “disenfranchised.” The question might be posed: Were Weiner and his co-producers and directors consciously pushing a Marxist worldview of Madison Avenue (and by implication, of the rest of the country)?
I doubt it. Weiner and his cohorts were simply expressing the worldview they were taught all their lives was and that it was correct and right. It’s the only thing they know. They were prepped from grade school on up through graduate school to reject anything or any idea that conflicted with or contradicted their worldview orthodoxy. They are not on George Orwell’s intellectual level of being able to write or produce fiction with explicit political themes (such as Nineteen Eight Four and Animal Farm). And they are certainly not on Ayn Rand’s level. If they were, they would not have used Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged in so brief a throw-away instance of sly agitprop.
That was a shrewdly contrived device, but I doubt that any of the directors, including Weiner, have ever read the novel in its entirety. They had heard that it was about greedy, selfish businessmen going on strike against the welfare state, and because they had been taught that greed and selfishness were evil and certainly had no place in a kinder, caring society where everyone looked out for one another and made sacrifices, that novel and that philosophy had to be dismissed as the playbook of amoral scoundrels, such as those who populate “Mad Men.”
Weiner and Company are the products of an ideology they never bothered to question or examine, an ideology that proposes to override an individual’s volition and freedom. Instead, as congenital advertisers of statism, they have imbibed the Alinsky tactic of targeting, isolating, and freezing a specific liberty, and escalating a campaign for or against it. They do it without thought. Which means that Hollywood leftists are knee-jerks. The tactic has been used by government and advocacy groups for a very long time, sometimes crudely, often with stealth, long before Don Draper downed his first martini and lit his first Lucky Strike.
For the morally and intellectually defenseless and susceptible, “Mad Men” is indeed “subliminal.” For those who are intellectually alert and on guard against the “hidden persuaders” of altruism and collectivism in all its forms, the series is part and parcel of a culture that induces spiritual claustrophobia and an innervating cultural alienation Marx could never have imagined but would have approved nevertheless.