Sell of the century: The Genius of Mad Men

Matthew Weiner's meticulously rendered drama series about the world of Madison Avenue admen is already seen as one of TV's all-time greats. As the third series begins on BBC4, our writers explore the things that make Mad Men so special
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The Fifties & Sixties

By Tim Walker

Mad Men's name has become synonymous with the distinctive styles of the early Sixties.

Yet beneath the show's meticulously tailored mise-en-scène is a world bereft of the sunny, space-age optimism we've become accustomed to in other portrayals of the period. It reminds us smug citizens of the 21st century just how far we've travelled from the times when black men operated the elevators, women answered the phone, and unreconstructed white males smoked and drank their way through the working day. But is it a cautionary tale or, as one unimpressed critic described it, "an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better"?

It's a drama concerned with surfaces, and the superficial detail is astoundingly accurate. Creator Matthew Weiner is famous in on-set circles for his period perfectionism. He insisted on GM-free fruit in the bowls at the fictional Sterling Cooper office, on era-specific train schedules, and on his protagonist Don Draper flying with the correct airline (and in the correct model of aeroplane). But Mad Men is set in the gap between the surface and the underlying reality: between a cosy Sterling Cooper cigarette advertisement and the truth of lung cancer, say, or between the Drapers' picture-book performance of marriage and the simmering resentment beneath. In that respect, it speaks to viewers from any decade.

Some of the issues of the day are dealt with only obliquely; women may take centre stage in Mad Men, but blacks, Jews and gays get only subplots. Still, they're magnificent ones: Paul Kinsey posing as a Civil Rights activist; Roger Sterling bringing the building's single Jewish employee (a post boy) to a meeting with a major Jewish client in the hope of making the client feel "comfortable"; the tragedy of closet-dwelling art director Sal Romano.

Current affairs can seem like mere markers to remind the audience when exactly we are, but they often have deep dramatic resonance, too: the devastating death of Marilyn Monroe and the Cuban missile crisis both affected the characters from afar. The third series is set in 1963, the year of Kennedy's assassination. And the 1960 presidential election had a more direct impact, as Sterling Cooper worked on the Republican campaign. "Consider the product," said Roger, blind to the historical irony. "He's young, handsome, Navy hero. Honestly, it shouldn't be too hard to convince America that Dick Nixon is a winner."

It's clear that the men – if not the women – of Sterling Cooper are on the wrong side of history, trapped in the previous decade with only the venal youngster, Pete Campbell, to point them towards the Swinging Sixties. In an encounter with a beatnik, Don is disdainful and patronising.

He even lags behind the bleeding edge of advertising: when he first sees the revolutionary Volkswagen "Lemon" ad, he dismisses it, saying: "I don't know what I hate about it the most."

The advertising trade

By Dave Trott

Mad Men is the story of New York advertising in the Fifties, that period of great big personalities like Marion Harper, David Ogilvy, Rosser Reeves, and Leo Burnett. They were huge guys who built massive, global agencies.

It's the dinosaur era of what was known as "golf-course advertising", so called because you won accounts by taking clients to the golf course and drinking gin and tonics all day. You'd spend more time keeping your clients happy and giving them freebies than actually making their ads. The motto for those agencies was that there are three rules in advertising: repetition, repetition and repetition. You make the advertising work by having a lot of money to spend and relentlessly clubbing people over the head with the message.

Think of all those famous Leo Burnett campaigns, such as Tony the Tiger ("They're Grrrreat!") for Kellogg's, and the Jolly Green Giant ("Ho, ho, ho") sweetcorn ads. It was all the annoying jingles that would just pound into your head and beat you into submission. You might not like it, but you'd remember it.

And they sold products as impossible dreams, rather that just products. Take the Marlboro advertising. Smoke our cigarette and you'll be like a cowboy in the Wild West. Drink our beer and you'll have more friends. Wear our aftershave and women will fall at your feet. Buy our shirt and your boss will give you a raise. Drive our car and your life will be a success.

This approach goes right back to the hucksters and the snake-oil salesmen who would sell you products right off the back of a wagon and try to hoodwink you. It was: "Buy our product and it will change your life."

You see it in Mad Men with the pitch for the Kodak Carousel projector. Sterling Cooper's Don Draper makes the claim: "This device is like a spaceship, it's a time machine that goes backwards and forwards and takes us to a place where we ache to go again." How can Kodak change life? Kodak just takes good pictures, that's all. This is huckster advertising where you pretend the product is something it isn't.

What came about at the end of the Fifties and beginning of the Sixties was the arrival of Bill Bernbach, the founder of the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency. Mad Men references Bernbach and the threat he posed to traditionalists like Sterling Cooper. Whereas the Mad Men era had been based on making people aspire to the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant family with 2.2 children, Bernbach would advertise with warmth and humour and honesty. He'd show black people, Chinese and Jews in the commercials, even fat people and ugly people. Because that's what real life was like, not an advertising dream world.

He was honest with people, admitting that a product might not do everything. He admitted that his client Avis was number two to Hertz, but the slogan was "We Try Harder". He would advertise Volkswagen as a small, basic car. He would admit what it was and make a benefit of it, that it used less petrol and could get to places that a larger car could not. That was unheard of before.

In the Mad Men era, ad agencies would sell the public illusions, pretend the product was the all-time best thing ever. Right through the Fifites there was no alternative.

In the Sixties Bill Bernbach introduced a different, honest, charming, truthful kind of advertising. Which is what attracted a lot of us to go into advertising in the first place.

Today, not all advertising lives up to Bernbach's ideals. But at least it's not all as crass and patronising as it was in the Mad Men era."

Dave Trott, founder of the CST advertising agency and the author of Creative Mischief, was talking to Ian Burrell

The battle of the sexes

By John Walsh

It's just another day in the office at Sterling Cooper: the lads (Paul, Ken, Salvatore, Pete) have had a bet with each other and, on a signal, Ken runs forward and pursues one of the secretaries around the office. He pulls her to the floor and, as she struggles, hoicks up her skirt. "They're blue!" he shouts, to whomever had bet five bucks on the hue of secretarial knickers that day.

Incredibly, the felled stenographer doesn't instantly sock him on the jaw, demand his expulsion for harassment, or phone the police with a charge of assault. Everyone just laughs. It's what one did in 1960. The men were incorrigible. The girls were merely playthings, their office function simply to lubricate relations between the men.

Series 1 of Man Men showed the world that the chaps of 1960 America had made for themselves. Series 2 revealed how cracks were appearing in the macho carapace, and women were starting to fight back. In the early Sixties, the second wave of feminism hadn't yet hit the West. Mad Men presents these social strands with subtlety and economy. At Sterling Cooper, it's almost unheard-of for a woman to be anything but a secretary or switchboard operator. Peggy Olsen starts as the former but fights her way up to become a copywriter. Polite, nervous and used casually for sex by the weaselly Pete, she's always tilting her chin, swallowing her nerves and falteringly asking for more, like a feminised Olivia Twist. Because her ideas are good, and she has talent, she gets her way. But she needs advice. It's a breakthrough moment in Series 2 when an older woman tells her: "You're never going to get that corner office until you start treating Don as an equal. You can't be a man. Don't even try. Be a woman. It's a powerful business when done correctly."

Betty Draper's transformation is bleaker: she moves from doll-like housewife to take-no- bullshit termagant who comes to hate the doll's house she inhabits. Tired of Don's infidelities, she throws him out – only to discover that she's pregnant and that society is ranged against rich wives who are "behaving like anxious young girls" in wanting an abortion. Her fight for empowerment carries on into Series 3. But remember: it's 1962 and we're a year away from Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and its identification of "a problem without a name".

The name of the problem was sexism. In the next few years would come feminism, human rights legislation, the pill, abortion-on-demand clinics. Mad Men shows us how we got there from the world of Stepford and Sterling Cooper.

The age of style

By Carola Long

Who doesn't watch Mad Men and resolve to smarten up their act? Whether it's Don Draper's slick two-button suits or Betty Draper's pristine cashmere, the characters' clothes are enough to make anyone watching it while wearing stretch leisurewear blush redder than Joan Holloway's hair with shame. It's the best-dressed show on television.

There's a certain continuity between the mad men's profession and the sophistication of the clothes and accessories. After all, the unreconstructed alpha males and repressed women work in a world in which appearance is everything – and what are clothes but self-advertising? Your wardrobe is your shop window. Office manager Joan is the perfect example of this philosophy. She plays up her bombshell physique in an array of bright, figure-hugging sheath dresses, knitted tops and pencil skirts. As costume designer Janie Bryant has said, she "works everything she has. She has always worn fitted garments; she always will wear fitted garments, until the day she's six feet under." Joan is the perfect example of how covering up can be so much more sexy than flashing the flesh.

As highlighted by the agency's ad campaign for Playtex underwear – which asked, "Are you a Jackie or a Marilyn?" – female stereotypes are rampant in the Mad Men world, and the women's clothes underline the ways in which their characters are perceived. There's the voluptuous seductress Joan, the flawless ice maiden Betty and the bluestocking Peggy. Of course their characters are actually deeply nuanced, but that's how they are packaged. Peggy might have the best career of all the women in the show, but true to the bluestocking stereotype her wardrobe consists of fussy, high-necked blouses and pleated skirts.

Joan looks like Rita Hayworth on oestrogen, and Betty Draper has a cool Grace Kelly thing going on, with her buttery-blonde hair and preppy pearl earrings. This season, she starts to move away from what Bryant calls "cupcake" prom dresses towards Jackie O-style maternity wear and sexier, tailored shift dresses.

However, it's not just the ladies who are compellingly chic. Don Draper's razor-sharp suits with their narrow lapels, slanted pockets and two-button Sixties styling turn him into the James Bond of the agency. Many of the suits in the show were made by the American label Brooks Brothers, who even brought out a limited edition Mad Men suit in the autumn, designed by Janie Bryant. Don Draper does a mean line in outerwear too, with his tobacco-coloured mac, fedora and the super-slick camel coat he sports at the end of the series. Older ad man Roger Sterling has a more formal, patrician look, with a pinstripe suit, wider trousers than Draper's straight styles, and a waistcoat. Mad Men is a masterclass in the art of power dressing, whether that applies to the boardroom or the bedroom.

The martini reflex

By John Walsh

The first scene in the first episode of the first series was the perfect establishing shot. Set in a Manhattan bar, it revealed a generation of chattering young professionals to whom the concepts of sobriety, abstinence, health, clean lungs, mineral water and alcohol-free lager were wholly alien. The camera headed straight for the bar like a lush, and lingered on the flushed faces swilling bourbon, gin and vodka martinis. Every other hand held a cigarette. Above every head, nicotine smoke hung in a toxic fug. Don Draper's first words were to ask a black waiter what it would take to make him switch his brand of smokes. Don was wrestling with the problem of how to pitch tobacco advertising, now that some pesky health report had established a link with cancer. It didn't worry him, it was just damned inconvenient.

Viewers quickly learned that no amount of health warnings would deter the men and women of Sterling Cooper, their clients and lovers, from smoking and drinking incessantly. Every meeting of the admen was conducted in a sauna-like cloud of Lucky Strikes. Don's girlfriends usually sparked up after sex. Don's wife Betty lit up first thing in the morning, while still in bed, and smoked in front of her children. Don's doctor warned him about taking it easy, before himself retrieving a smouldering Lucky from the ashtray. "Doing this show without smoking," said Matthew Weiner, Mad Men's creator, "would've been a joke. It would've been phony."

Ditto the drinking. All the men in the show drink oceanic quantities of, mostly, spirits, from morning 'til night. It's amazing that any work gets done at Sterling Cooper when every ad campaign, every meeting, every promotion, almost every decision is launched or celebrated on a tidal wave of booze. But it's part of the rumpus-room atmosphere, the feeling that advertising men, already empowered by huge salaries, cars and a free hand on the typing pool's breasts, must be indulged with every other available stimulant if it enables them to produce the vital line of copy and the illustrations that sell cleaning products in millions.

Drink is used to score points off rivals. When Roger Sterling makes a pass at Don's wife, our hero takes revenge by feeding him oysters and a dozen cocktails, then making him walk 20 flights of stairs so that he pukes up in front of important clients. Drink becomes an index of the characters' urge to escape – how we cringed when Don drank can after can of lager while trying to build a Wendy house for his daughter's birthday party.

If drink causes a problem, it's quickly tidied away. When chronic soak Freddy Rumsen pisses his pants before a client pitch he is given six months' leave and not expected to come back. Nothing, you see, can be allowed to interrupt the endless sucking and swilling of the big babies of Madison Avenue.

The wives & mistresses

By Madeleine North

There's a scene in Scorsese's Goodfellas in which Ray Liotta's character, narrating the film, tells us that "Saturday night was for wives, but Friday night at the Copa was always for the girlfriends". It's a line to make the Mad Men nod in knowing approval. If they are not quite so flagrant with their philandering, the ad men of Sixties Manhattan can at least be accused of prodigious double standards (husbands can stray, wives cannot even stray from the kitchen).

Cast your mind back to the very first episode and that psychological sleight of hand the director pulls off. We see Don Draper the brooding presence, Don Draper the killer ad man, Don Draper the lover. We assume that he puts it around a bit. We assume he's unattached. We assume there's a Manhattan bachelor pad... And then that closing scene with Don going home – to the big suburban house, the perfect blonde wife waiting for him in bed, the children whose hair he lovingly strokes as they sleep.

The biggest shock is that Don has not the slightest qualm about his double life. Then again, this a man for whom 'double life' barely begins to cover it: first he fakes his death; next he steals another man's identity; then he has to divorce the wife of the man whose name he nicked in order to marry Betty... let's face it, fidelity is not exactly top of Don's 'To Do' list. And he's not the only one coolly juggling a home life with a mistress or two. In Series 1, Roger Sterling, a quintessential silver fox, finds respite from familial woes in the many curves of super-secretary Joan Holloway, while ambitious accounts guy Pete charmingly tells his fiancée, "I'm giving up my life to be with you" before promptly bedding "new girl" Peggy.

Infidelity is hardly the preserve of Sixties New Yorkers. This was a time when, to be part of a family unit was as mandatory as chain-smoking, cheating on that family unit, and knocking back a whisky mid-morning; when to be a single mother, and a divorced one at that, was akin to being a black man on a whites-only bus (Betty and her friend discuss their new divorcée neighbour Helen as if a paedophile's moved in). Children were not seen and not heard, and wives would have dinner on the table when (and if) their menfolk got home.

Still, the guys don't have all the fun. The second series has already seen Betty flirting with a man at her riding stables and – in revenge – pick up a handsome stranger at a bar, while Peggy is starting to discover what it really means to be a single girl in Manhattan. Don even gets a taste of his own medicine when the wife of a powerful client essentially bullies him into having sex with her. The tables, perhaps, are set to turn...

The third series of Mad Men begins at 10pm on Wednesday on BBC4