All This: Mad Men and the Persistence of the Old Regime

Wouldn’t it be nice to go back to childhood? Like pain from an old wound, we remember the joy of Christmas — the joy of getting stuff, without having to realize we were being bought off. We wish that it could be that way again. We wish our stuff could have meaning, that objects could mediate our social relationships once more. We want it so much that we’re all willing to pay a surcharge so that the company can hire very smart and conflicted people to lie to us about the consumer goods we’re purchasing, giving us a spoonful of ideological sugar to make the consumption go down.

That’s what’s hardest to deal with — that we want the ideology. We want to believe. We want “all this” to be what they say it is, what we tell ourselves it is. We should be happy, but failing that, we can at least manage to be grateful.

Who is “we,” though? Since I’m talking about Mad Men, that “we” is of course the elite (and those few lucky strivers who manage to claw partway into it). We never see a customer sit down at Burger Chef, see Peggy’s ad, and get a tear in her eye. We never see the working stiff deeply moved at the prospect of capturing the dynamics of nostalgia using his new slide projector. Don and Peggy are not selling products to people — they are selling products to the producers themselves. The story is not about the production of consumer goods, but about the reproduction of the ruling class itself. It is obvious that the family is not a workable model for any of the main characters, and yet it remains an indispensable point of reference. It comes to a head in the half-season finale when Peggy sells Burger Chef as the kind of community and family that cannot find a place in the disordered homes of the elite — and it’s exactly what they were hungry for.

People complain that Mad Men doesn’t do enough to portray social struggles, that it makes dissidents look like fools, etc. Part of me wants to say: “Spoiler alert! They all failed!” But that’s too simplistic — the show needs to present them the way it does, because it needs to show us how, after all the disruption and rebellion of the 60s, the old regime was able to persist. And the answer that the show is offering us is that they collectively bought their own pitch. Within the frame of that pitch, they could understand the civil rights protestors who wanted to sit at the lunch counter, but they could never understand the bohemians who wanted to live in an abandoned building. Hence the 1960s end with Nixon and the beginnings of the conservative reaction that continues to define American society to this day.

The conflict of creativity vs. computers in this season is a little bloodless as far as its entertainment value goes, but it’s the first genuine challenge to the old regime — the first challenge that seems like it opens out into a form of life rather than a pointless acting out. That form of life is bloodless and unattractive to the characters in the show, replacing the human element of persuasion with raw manipulation by computer. In the end, Sterling Cooper & Partners has to sell its soul to the devil — join the nightmarish factory of uncreative advertising at McCann — in order to avoid being gutted by the computer itself, and it’s unclear how that will work out in terms of the plot of the show.

We do know for sure how the conflict played out in real life, though. The computers won, and now the elites don’t need a pitch anymore — they just do what’s necessary. We’re witnessing the handoff of cultural hegemony from Madison Avenue to Wall Street, complete with the sudden relevance of business jargon and MBAs. There’s something terrible about selling hamburgers as a replacement for authentic family life, but there’s surely something even more terrible about a ruling class that doesn’t even need a pitch, that doesn’t need to be persuaded that what they’re doing is for the best.

5 Responses to “All This: Mad Men and the Persistence of the Old Regime”

  1. Roy Sexton (Reel Roy Reviews) Says:

    genius insight here – and as someone in the marketing world myself, you nailed the crux of our professional dilemma: “The story is not about the production of consumer goods, but about the reproduction of the ruling class itself. It is obvious that the family is not a workable model for any of the main characters, and yet it remains an indispensable point of reference.”

  2. downcastmysoul Says:

    Growing up during the Reagan “Revolution” I wondered what happened to the 60s. Even the 70s, It was traded for what? Political Correctness? Video games? Loss of even the freedom the people had in 40s and 50s?

  3. Archita Says:

    “There’s something terrible about selling hamburgers as a replacement for authentic family life, but there’s surely something even more terrible about a ruling class that doesn’t even need a pitch, that doesn’t need to be persuaded that what they’re doing is for the best.” Wow!

  4. South of the Strait Says:

    Great insights. The genius of Mad Men, to me, has been the ability to draw viewers in with an image of glamor and power, and then shatter that image into a million pieces.

  5. Jody Blanco Says:

    I guess the one thing to add to these thoughtful reflections is that Don and Peggy are at the center of the ideology machine, but they were not born of the elite — they are courtesans, prostitutes — and it’s uncertain from one episode to another how they’ll end up (“lost! saved!”). This, to me, is what brings the wild element of either messianism or radical critique into their approaches to the commodity. It’s true that Burger Chef will never suffice as the seed of a new ekklesia. But it holds out a promise of what an ekklesia could be, perhaps beyond the commodity that occasions its imagination. The elite need people like Don and Peggy to “ride the tiger.” But their artistic complicity with advertisement always flirts with the possibility of a betrayal, where either of them reveal to their clients what hypocrites they are. Of course, one may argue in the end that it’s just another fantasy of the petit-bourgeoisie. But I still want to know how it turns out!


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