Mad Men: a show that respects business

Mad Men, unlike most TV shows and Hollywood movies, depicts the complexities and challenges of business.

In this 2009 TV publicity image released by AMC (from left) Vincent Kartheiser portrays Pete Campbell, Jon Hamm portrays Don Draper, and John Slattery portrays Roger Sterling in a scene from 'Mad Men.'

[Warning: spoilers but you have nothing to worry about if you are current through the end of season 3.]

I have been enjoying the cable TV series Mad Men, now in its fourth season on the AMC network. New York, the 1960′s, and the fictitious Manhattan ad agency of Sterling Cooper provide the setting of the series. The firm’s talented creative director Don Draper, brilliantly depicted by John Hamm, leads a talented ensemble cast. Smart dialogue, great acting, and loyal attention to the design of the era make this show a difficult habit to break.

While I do not entirely disagree with Jeff Tucker (who has written that in its depiction of social customs and mores lies an endorsement of the subsequent expansion of the nanny state) I believe that there is another dimension to the show that has not been much discussed: the show is in the minority of products from the entertainment industry that take business seriously.

Most movies which depict business executives in one of two ways: either they motivated entirely by pure malevolence toward humanity in general; or, they are driven by an over-arching greed that transcends any other motives.

As Alex Tabarrok writes in the Wall Street Journal,

In the movies, capitalists are almost invariably cast as villains. Has someone been murdered? Are the residents of a small town dying of cancer? Is an environment being despoiled? Look no further than the CEO of some large corporation. Quick, name as many movies as you can that feature capitalists as heroes. “Batman Forever” and “Iron Man” do not count. There are a few (“The Edge,” “You’ve Got Mail”), but it’s a short list. Now name as many movies as you can that feature mass-murdering corporations and corporate villains? That one is easy: “The Fugitive,” “Syriana,” “Mission Impossible II,” “Erin Brockovich,” “The China Syndrome” and “Avatar,” to name only a few.

Even when a corporation is not the primary villain, Hollywood lets its dislike of commerce be known.

The show is nearly alone in looking at the reality of business as a complex and challenging undertaking of imperfect, but not malevolent human beings. The show is clearly not anti-business in the way that Tabarrok illustrates. The advertising industry is one of the prime targets of anti-market ideology. The series does not condemn advertising. Instead it takes a respectful and interested stance toward the industry and the people in it. That is in itself a political statement.

The story lines bounce back and forth between the office and the private lives of the characters. On the business side, several economic themes emerge – consumer preference, competition, constant change, innovation, skill, and the division of labor.

As Tucker noted, the 60′s itself is one of the main characters in the show. The camera often lingers over a piece of furniture, a clock, a carpet, a car, a meal, or a costume. Typewriters are ubiquitous. The arrival of a photocopier at the firm causes considerable consternation: where to put it? What will clients think when they see it? After laughing at products that were new in the 60′s but now strike us as outmoded, I realized that the the innovation in production and constant change in consumer preference is a theme in the show. While we are not so far removed from that era, the range of products we have available today has changed considerably.

Consumer preference is the driving force behind advertising. Don Draper frequently is shown meeting with clients to discuss the needs of their business. The executives discuss their success or failure in terms of their own customers.

A theme of the show is success and failure of products and industries. In some cases a business that has been stable for many years is going into decline; for example a bathing suit company that refuses to shift its production to what the company’s management considers risqué bikinis is losing market share as bathing dress becomes more revealing. Many of the prominent brands featured in the show no longer exist.

Responding to technological change is another important theme. Television emerged and overtook print media as a platform for advertising during this period. Harry Crane, an account manager, invents his own job by requesting to be appointed director of television for the firm, which prior to him, did not have one. Not realizing the importance of this position, senior partner Roger Sterling agrees to appoint him to this position. Over time the television department grows as a share of the firms’ revenues, and Crane advances in his career, adding subordinates to his department.

In other cases, a new firm is attempting to gain market share from the industry leaders. A young entrepreneur (whose wealth was inherited from a successful father) jai-alai launches an expensive ad campaign based on his belief that the sport will become as popular as baseball. We know from the perspective of the present that this will never happen, and that the ad campaign will be a failure.

The writers do not shy away from addressing the issue of personal success and failure. Draper is depicted as a creative director of extraordinary talent. His ability to connect on an emotional level with the consumers is one of the main themes of the show. His success is achieved through his deep and intuitive insight into the imagination of consumers and his ability to see connections between the product and the consumer’s desires. His ability is exemplified in a scene where he presents the advertising strategy for a new invention – the slide projector. Draper presents a slide show of family pictures and then explains,

Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards… it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called the carousel. It let’s us travel the way a child travels – around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know are loved.

An example of how the show addresses failure is a scene where the father of the jai-alai entrepreneur explains that his son grew up in an atmosphere of success (“my success”, he adds) and that only when his son has lost his inherited wealth will he face the reality and possibly do something valuable to someone other than himself.

Division of labor is a theme of the show. Don Draper is fond of pointing out that the advertising industry exists because its customers – the producers of products — do not have the creative skills found within the ad agencies. At the firm, many skills are present, and as we see over the course of a season, necessary: graphic art, account management, copy writing, and secretarial. After he loses an account with the Hilton Hotel chain, Draper admits that he is not an “account man”. When Draper leaves to form his own agency, the co-founders invite the business manager Lane Price to come along as their CFO because none of them knows how to manage budgets.

Competition between firms is another theme of the shows. Sterling Cooper is a mid-tier firm that has a few of the premium brands and some lesser-knowns. In one episode, the firm has the chance to get an account with a major airline (Pan Am – another brand that no longer exists). A serious miscalculation, which results in Sterling Cooper losing one of their best existing customers and failing to win the new account. A dialogue follows between Draper and partner Roger Sterling about their nature of risk taking.

I am so familiar with the anti-business bias of most entertainment products that for the first season I was expecting every scene about a business topic to be framed with the post-modern irony quotes that have become so indispensable to express the writer/viewer’s smug position of superiority. Somewhere in to the second season I began to trust that the writers were really trying to depict business in a more realistic way – as a complex and challenging pursuit that people do imperfectly, incorporating both success and failure.

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