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Mad Men, the culture of consumerism, and the language of advertising

Mad Men, the ’60s-era drama about the men and women working in a New York advertising agency, makes its long-awaited return this weekend after a 17-month long hiatus. Although less obvious than the stellar art direction and costume design in transporting viewers into a specific time, language plays an important role in creating the lived-in world that the show’s characters sometimes gracefully and sometimes clumsily navigate.


The title, Mad Men, provides insight into the show’s psyche through a multilayered play on words. It is about the culture of the advertising industry that thrived on Madison Avenue. It tells us that the show is about “ad men” and we have to guess whether “men” here is used generically or whether it is intentionally exclusive to the women who also held significant positions in the business. The two most common meanings for mad, “crazy” and “angry” seem particularly apt, especially considering how masochistic some of the characters seem and also the stressful nature of the work—conceiving of and selling ideas to clients. The show’s title, like a key goal in advertising, is at once broadly recognizable and subtly effective.

The times, they are a-changin’

One thing that draws me to some of my favorite TV shows is when they are centered around a specific time, place, and subject. On Mad Men, consumerism and work culture are just as essential as character and plot development, and viewers have the opportunity, through this conceit, to consider new words introduced in the first half of the 1960s. The term situation comedy, first appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1953 in reference to the television classic I Love Lucy, and popularized by the further growth in ownership of TV sets, was shortened to “sitcom” in a 1964 Life magazine article about the Bing Crosby Show. And at a time when differentiating between different kinds of television shows became important for both ad agencies and consumers, the genre in which programs aired in limited number of installments became known in the US as the miniseries in 1963. Similarly, alcoholic beverages like sangria (first recorded in the OED in 1961) and spritzer, (first cited  in 1961 and later appeared in a 1964 Vogue ad with the slogan “Drink Spritzer”), fit right in among the favorites of Mad Men’s heavy drinking ad execs. As does the breathalyzer, an ever-increasing necessity for determining whether a person is sober enough to drive.

The ’60s, a decade that did not spawn the term “culture wars” but undoubtedly exemplified them, is the ideal setting to wander vicariously through a changing landscape. Whether they are major events that shapes the lives of the characters or Easter eggs dropped by the writers to remind the audience that Mad Men does not exist in a vacuum, historical and cultural references like the Nixon/Kennedy presidential election, the death of icon Marilyn Monroe, and the arrival of Beatlemania, ground the show—otherwise highly stylized and rife with melodrama—in studied realism.

“We are Creative. The least important, most important thing there is.”

The noun creative has been used to describe the “material produced for an advertising campaign, such as the copy, design, or artwork” since 1903, according to the OED. In the 1930s, a person who “carries out creative work on an advertising campaign, esp. a copywriter, art director, or designer” was considered a “creative” as well. By the 1960s, Creative (with a capital C) had become the name of an entire division within an agency, with art, copy, and design teams all under a single banner. The line above, spoken by Creative Director and lead Mad Men antihero Don Draper, reminds us that any good workplace drama or comedy has the keen ability to teach us about the work the characters are doing by having them react to and interact with this work. Regardless of whether or not they feel disdain for doing business with some of the less progressive clients in a culturally turbulent decade or indifferent toward federal warnings about the adverse health effects of smoking when lured by a lucrative “American Tobacco” account, a creative’s most pressing concern is for the integrity of his or her work.

For anyone who works in media or has a product to sell, it is important to understand how essential advertising is to a company’s revenue and profile. I have Mad Men to thank, at least in part, for my fascination with the inner-workings of both in-house and out-of-home advertising firms—smaller, and still declining, business entities in the 21st century.

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