It’s a Mad Ad World
Mad Men, a television show and a convoluted story about a charming sociopath who reinvented himself as a Madison Avenue adman in a grey flannel suit, wrapped up its exalted place in contemporary pop culture last weekend. I watched bits and parts of the first few of seasons. I was not overly entranced but I was struck by the fact that the show’s writers had done their homework; they’d at least studied Vance Packard’s seminal The Hidden Persuaders (1957): the cancer scare related to cigarettes was something akin to reefer madness and, anyway, ‘toasted’ tobacco was, well, better, according to four out of five doctors.
In my 25 years in the advertising industry I never met a soul who’d read the book nor even heard of it. Granted, its examples are dated but the examined strategies and principles of selling, of whetting desire, are fundamental. The majority of suits I worked with were indifferent to the ever-evolving state of our business and worse, their clients’ businesses. A newspaper’s financial section was a little too dry to compete with Facebook updates and Perez Hilton’s puerile scribbles. In fairness, most of our clients seemed less than thrilled with their professional lot in life and therefore did not pay any heed to trends within their own industries: marketing was a university course, passion a Human Resources term. That said, the good ones on either side of the shop and client divide together made a calculable impact on the marketplace and as a production manager and sometime writer I was proud to see these projects through from concept to launch. I earned those sleepless nights; the wee wee hours were billable.
Mad Men of course caught on with the advertising industry. Its influence on the esthetics of contemporary design is mildly disturbing. It is proof of either the cyclical nature of fashion in the arts of persuasion or of a 21st century creative nadir. I remember chatting with a designer who’d bought a season of Mad Men shows. He thought the packaging of the set as a Zippo lighter was clever, unique and pretty cool. I said, ‘It’s been done before. Check out the original album sleeve of Catch a Fire by Bob Marley and the Wailers from 1973.’
Like trade and indeed civilization itself, advertising is the result of surplus. The business really got a goose with the advent of mass production in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Unsold goods have no value; they are in fact a drain. There is a valid argument too that advertising is a bastion of democracy. Consider that the fourth estate in all of its forms exists to hold those who wield power to account. Our newspapers, news magazines and newscasts might not exist without the subsidizing patronage of advertisers. This is not my thesis nor can I refute it. Finally, there is a degree of honesty in advertising believe it or not because there is no pretence of objectivity. There’s no hiding an advertiser’s agenda: BUY THIS.
When the characters of Mad Men get around to actually doing any work they tote totems, legendary brands and classic ad campaigns. You sense that if the series ran long enough in real time, they’d be pitching a Mean Joe Greene TV commercial to Coke. Glory days. The industry’s paradox is that bad advertising, poorly executed, low budget noise, is equally memorable. There are reeking mounds of it, each heap perpetuating the fallacy that anybody can do it. Just as, you know, your five-year-old is a better painter than Jackson Pollock. This misconception diminishes the perceived value of advertising and becomes fodder for some very bad decisions.
People are clever. There’s always somebody who’ll figure out a better way to provide a service or improve upon a product. Yet many business plans seem to be collaborations between the March Hare and the Mad Hatter, pecked out in Wonderland. There are no allowances for advertising because it’s deemed an unnecessary expense starting up, something to maybe consider down the road as profits mount. An anonymous horse contemplates the rear end of a cart. Established brands and businesses are guilty of a similar counter-intuitive mistake. When hard times hit a company, or worse, its customers, the immediate tendency is to make the easiest, simplest cost-saving cut, slash the advertising budget. Why be top of mind when the battle for a shrinking portion of a discretionary dollar is more intense than ever?