First of all, let me say that I defer to no one in my general disgust with television. Being attuned as I am to the assumptions, illusions, and general cultural “junk” people carry around between their ears, I never fail to notice the myriad ways, subtle and overt, that the vast majority of television programming reinforces that cultural junkyard. No less than the great Rod Serling noticed the paradox of television. Specifically, he observed that its great potential to educate and enlighten has been largely usurped by its other potential to delude and obscure reality. It has chosen its dark potential for the simple reason that the corporate customers that pay for it, don’t want enlightened critical thinkers. They want infantilized dolts, who buy the horseshit images and memes they use to sell toothpaste and laundry soap.
So it is highly unusual — and this may well be the first and only example — that I would plug a television program. As it turns out, cable channel AMC’s “Mad Men” is precisely about the corporate world of advertising in the year 1960 — hey, when Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone was new, and already a source of irritation to CBS executives, who preferred westerns, cop shows, and sitcoms. It is a program about a world that doesn’t exist anymore — the very “Ozzy and Harriet” world today’s conservative ideologue pines away for. Only it doesn’t depict the potemkin village of Ozzy and Harriet. It depicts the real world, including the very creative originators of that potemkin village, the image they used in the service of Proctor and Gamble.
The imagery of the show, alone, makes it unique in the history of television. “Nostalgia” shows are nothing new, and are noteworthy for what they mostly aren’t. What they mostly aren’t are depictions of what life really looked like, focusing instead on a nostalgic memory that has neatly forgotten the uglier realities. “Mad Men” gives you those ugly realities, not as the point of the program, but exactly as those ugly realities appeared at the time. They were casual, accepted realities, few people questioned, and they are depicted casually. The characters aren’t crusading heroes against those ugly realities. The main character is no “Hawkeye” Pierce, bringing 1970′s political sensibilities to the Korean War. The show’s main character, Don Draper, is asked, “have we ever hired a Jew?” “Not on my watch,” says Draper. The raw, unapologetic bigotry in corporate offices is jarring, and depicted exactly as it was. It was casual and unquestioned. Similarly, the gender heirarchy — men in the offices, women in secretarial pool — is unquestioned, as are the leering, groping, and verbal wolf whistles of the overgrown teenaged boys in suits. Nobody thought anything of any of it.
There are other “slice of life” pictures that literally rock you back in your seat, especially because they are so casually depicted. Draper’s little girl walks in to speak with her mother, Draper’s wife. She has a plastic dry cleaning bag on her head, all the way to her knees. “We’re playing spaceman,” the little girl announces. The mother stops the little girl, and calls her over to scold her. “The dry cleaning that bag came from had better not be on the floor,” she warns. She isn’t the least bit concerned that her daughter has a plastic bag over her little head. Apparently, parents hadn’t wised up to that danger yet. Later in the same show, the two children are literally running around the car, from front seat to back, while mama is driving. Car seat? Seatbelts? Sheeyit. Through it all, mama, and Don, and just about everybody else, is puffing away on a cigarette. Every flat surface has an ashtray. Cigarette parphernalia is everywhere, from little cases for your pocket, to wooden boxes filled with smokes. Draper has a pushbutton gadget on his office coffee table that dispenses the god damn things to guests sitting on the sofa. People smoke in their offices. They smoke in restaurants. They smoke on the train One woman looked to be seven or eight months pregnant, puffing on a butt, and sipping a martini. Speaking of martini’s, every man has a bottle of booze in his office — and doesn’t hesitate to drink from it.
As it happens, 1960 was at the very dawn of awareness that cigarettes were killers. In the 50′s, cigarette manfacturers advertised the alleged health benefits of cigarettes. As the first episode of “Mad Men” opens, the Federal Trade Commission is cracking down on those kinds of claims. Mind you, banning cigarette advertising on television is still a decade away, as is the massive “stop smoking” campaign that began in the late 1960′s. At this point, the FTC is taking the baby step of forbidding cigarettes manufacturers from making bogus, unsubstantiated, and indeed false, claims about the “benefits” of their product. The reaction of the industry was predictable. “It’s like goddamn Russia,” a tobacco executive complains to Don Draper. Draper’s job is to come up with a new ad campaign for Lucky Strikes — one that doesn’t offend the “commanists” at the FTC.
For most of that first episode — including a number of subplots, woven in to give the “texture” of the time — Draper is drawing a blank. Indeed, it isn’t until a trio of executives for the company that makes “Lucky’s” is leaving a busted meeting, when inspiration hits Don. As they are rising, one says, “well at least the other companies have the same problem.” That turns the switch. Maybe Lucky Strikes can’t be sold as “good for you,” but neither can anyone else’s cigarettes. Which raises the question, what can be said about them? Don’s answer is simple. Anything you want — as long as its true.
Right here is why I like this show. Because it hits on an insight — the insight an advertising genius would have, that most people miss. It is an insight I have discussed here, in various ways, over the past four years. A “true” fact, might be completely meaningless. It might be irrelevant. It might have zero value in terms of it’s scientific, or logical value. But you can still say it. As long as you don’t say something that is deomonstrably untrue, you are not “lying.”
“How are cigarettes made? ” asks Draper.
One of the younger execs doesn’t know, prompting a “shame on you,” from the old man. Then the old man tells Draper, “we start with insect resistent seed, and we grow the tobaccah in the North Carolina sunshine, then we cut it, cure it, toast it . . .”
And then Draper stops him. “There it is, ” he says, writing on a blackboard. “It’s toasted,” is what he writes.
“Everybody’s is toasted,” one exec retorts.
“No,” says Draper. “Everybody else’s is poison. Yours is toasted.”
Sounds downright wholesome, doesn’t it? Like cornflakes or something. There is no claim of any health benefits. It is an absolutely true statement. It IS “toasted,” Everybody’s cigarette is “toasted,” — but the other guys can’t claim that now. It would sound like “me too.” They competition won’t tip the public off, either, because they want to play the same game, and they will allow their competitors to get away with this subterfuge. [See, John Nash's noncooperative game theory.] That’s why Newport cigarettes featured pictures of healthy young women who were “alive with pleasure.” Does it say cigarettes are good for you? Well, no, not exactly. It does say that cigarettes create “pleasure,” and they do. So does heroin. Meanwhile, your wholesome “toasted” Lucky Strikes will kill you dead as a hammer, if you smoke them long enough. In 1960, you didn’t have to tell people that. After the government started making cigarette makers tell people that — in that familiar warning on the side of every pack — advertisers discovered another little attribute of human nature. Large numbers of smokers ignore those warnings.
Draper doesn’t tell the tobacco executives all that. To them, he explains it this way. “What does a billboard along the highway tell you? It says that whatever you’re doing right now, is okay. It tells you that YOU are okay.” If you happen to be puffing a Lucky Strike, it must be okay if “it’s toasted.” But he’s not just talking about Lucky Strike billboards. Don Draper is talking about ALL advertising — and while we’re at it, ALL corporate media that is, after all, the environment in which that advertising appears. The westerns, and the sitcoms, and the cop shows, and even the TV news, all deliver the same message. “what you’re doing right now, is okay. You’re okay.” Every single day, 365 days a year, the blue tit beams the same message into your living room, one way or the other. Sit coms show people “just like you.” Cop shows show malicious evil people, who aren’t “okay” like you. Then it shows you the crusading saviors who protect your from them.
As for TV news, well, sometimes it gets “off message. When it told about My Lai, or showed that naked and burned Vietnamese girl, or revealed the CIA’s “dirty tricks,” or told people about Abu Ghraib, it was presenting the very ugly and very real possibility that maybe — just maybe — you aren’t “okay.” If you’ve ever seen one of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone episodes, they fairly drip with social criticism and the suggestion that maybe everything isn’t “okay.” Which explains why CBS executives were always gunning for the show. It also explains the knee jerk conservative response to the “liberal media” — the small parts of it that suggest the faintest whisper of the possibility that we Americans aren’t nearly as “okay” as we like to think.
If you happen to be a white man, still living in the 1950′s, you might find a lot more contemporary media images that are upsetting to your sense of being “okay.” The mere presence of colored folks on your TV screen in a role other than “Amos ‘n Andy” or Jack Benny’s Rochester might seem radical. Women occupying offices with windows might also give you the cultural heebie-jeebies. As for all those television homo’s who have emerged from the closet, and found their way into your living room, I tell you, it’s enough to drive Ward Cleaver to drink. Oh, wait, he already did that — they just never showed the two or three martini’s he knocked back as soon as he got home from “the office.” [What the hell did he do, anyway?]
Even here, television has proven itself to be very good at threading the needle of including those previously excluded, without ruffling the sensibilities of the previously privileged white men. Black folks just showed up in televised suburbs and televised work places — and nobody noticed. Professional women started doing those “men’s” jobs, in a televised world that acted like they had always been there. Still, it took a while to see blacks and women as the actual “boss.” That probably explains one reason “Mad Men” is so shocking, really. For all the social progression of the television image of American life, television has never shown the ugliness of systemic bigotry. Even Archie Bunker was a buffoon people could laugh at — carefully ignoring the fact that presumably better educated, wealthier, more powerful men looked at things the very same way.
In short, you only see the outcome of a “diverse” society as a “done deal.” You never see the struggle. The value you see is simple “inclusion,” and if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Colored folks work, and buy laundry soap, toothpaste, beer, and cars, just like everybody else. White bigots might think that “all” black folks draw welfare checks, which they use to buy Cadillacs. Madison Avenue knows better. Madison Avenue understood early that black folks, women, hispanics, Jews, and now gays, have one thing in common with Ward Cleaver. They are consumers, who want to be told that they are “okay,” too. Whatever color your skin, in the end, your money is the same shade of green. Which means that whatever the color of your skin, or whatever sort of “plumbing” you have, or however your sexual preferences are aligned, you too can be a middle class American consumer. On that subject, television never shows any other alternative.
Which brings us back to Madison Avenue. Specifically, it brings us around to the inherent post-modernism of our corporate culture. “It’s toasted,” is a fact — a fact that doesn’t mean anything, unless you happen to be addicted to Lucky Strikes. Then it means you’re “okay” for smoking them. It is a fact — a seemingly trivial fact — used by highly creative artists and writers who understand, and indeed taught Frank Luntz his signature insight. “It isnt’ what you say, it’s what your audience hears,” including a heaping helping of what your audience wants to hear.
Here is where it gets interesting — adding a level of understanding about what “post-modernism” is really all about. Conservatives hate “post-modernism,” even as their corporate propagandists excel at it. Post-modern philosophy posits in academia what Madison Avenue practices, namely an epistemology where all truth is subjective, where words can mean anything, and where facts are important or trivial, depending on the worldview of the subject. Originally, this radical nihilism set itself up against the allegedly “objective” modern worldview of the bourgeois ruling class. Conservatives defend that “objective” worldview, precisely because they seek to defend the elite whose perception of legitimacy is based on that allegedly “objective” worldview. The ruling class rules because it is “natural” that they should, or so they tell you.
Meanwhile conservatives understand what even post-modernists themselves have overlooked. This post-modern nihilism is in fact a critique of the ruling class, itself. Post-modern epistemology basically reveals the nature of the game played by ruling elites — all ruling elites throughout history. The postmodern critique can be modified — and indeed progressives have quickly picked up the refrain — that “reality” may exist after all, but it may not be nearly as friendly to the position of corporate elites as those elites would have you believe.
As for the real postmodernists, they aren’t those academic critics. They are the corporate propagandists who work on Madison Avenue. For a window on how they work, and more importantly, how they think, tune in to AMC Thursday nights at 10 Eastern.