This Sunday, Don Draper, the guy who made chain smoking and drinking Scotch at 10 a.m. trendy again, returns, as Mad Men enters its fourth season. In the age of reality shows and Snooki, why is Mad Men so well-received? Is the show true to the era it imitates? Here to discuss are Press Editor Brad Pareso, Editor-in-Chief Michael Patrick Nelson and one of the original Mad Men, The Independent Publisher and Press columnist Jerry Della Femina. Like our avatars? Visit AMC’s Mad Men Yourself site and make your own!
I’ve heard people say, “I was born in the wrong era,” and seeing the wild and absent-of-morals world of Mad Men makes me wish I was a ’30s baby. We’re in a world where drinking on the job is forbidden. At Sterling Cooper, Don barely has his coat hung up and someone’s already pouring the Scotch.
That must be the reason I have trouble remembering the ’70s. I went to lunch with four top executives from my agency. As we walked into The Italian Pavilion, a media hangout of the time, the bartender had our martinis ready at the table. After we finished looking at the menu another round was served. Before our lunch arrived a third round was downed. Then two bottles of wine with lunch and for dessert, someone (not me) would say, “I think I will have a Scotch for dessert.” Then we would go back to work and produce an amazing amount of work. Was everyone drunk? The 1970s were the golden age of advertising. Some of the most creative campaigns—Volkswagen, Avis, Volvo, Chivas Regal—were produced in an alcohol and cigarette haze.
Seeing the on-the-job etiquette in Mad Men and being 24 years old, my first reaction was, “Well, so much for staying believable.” I went out for sushi at lunch once and had sake. When I came back to the office I felt like everyone was staring daggers at me. It almost sounds like the “alcohol and cigarette haze” of creativity gave way to wining and dining clients, creativity be damned.
It was a different time, Brad. Human Resources made sure employees were keenly aware of the dangers of fun in the office. AIDS in 1980 brought about the end of the sexual revolution. Feminists decided that even the most innocent remark in the workplace could be the reason for the most crushing of lawsuits. Mad Men is about a time when the fun was just starting. My book, From Those Wonderful Folks Who Brought You Pearl Harbor, was about a time when fun in the workplace was in full swing. It’s over. But as the song goes: “Don’t let it be forgot / That once there was a spot / For one brief moment / That was known as / Camelot.”
But it’s not just workplace etiquette. Advertising itself has plainly changed. For example, in the time of Mad Men, advertising on television was uncharted territory—today, due to DVRs and Hulu, advertising on television is either on the verge of extinction or transforming into something else entirely. That’s just one example. But I’m curious: Were those Mad Men years a golden age for advertising because of the relaxed workplace or the work being done?
Mike, it’s a combination of the two. Great work in any field is produced when the setting is relaxed and free of fear. Fear is what keeps people from achieving greatness. Before there was television there was great advertising. When television, as we know it, dies, there will be great advertising, be it a tweet or on Facebook or Tom Toms or whatever the method of communication might be. In a way the Mad Men era sort of led the way to the loose, relaxed creative period of the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s in every industry. When people stop worrying about their jobs, creativity in America will flourish again.
And I still contend the quickest way to cease worrying is with a bottle of Glenlivet. I think one of the things that gets lost in Don Draper’s antics is his children—namely, the household they’re growing up in, with a barely there dad and sit-on-my-lap-while-I-smoke-four-cigarettes mom.
I think that’s probably a consequence of the era, too. But I’m not sure it’s specific to Draper—the family dynamic was so much different then. Really, look at Betty: She’s essentially free to devote her life to raising her children. Whether that’s what she wants is another story, of course. Today, though, that’s simply not an option. Second-hand emphysema and an oft-deadbeat dad aside, the Draper kids probably had more direct parental influence and interaction than the generations that followed them.
With all the fun and games of the Mad Men era, there were repercussions. About 95 percent of the marriages of my friends in advertising didn’t survive. Too many temptations. I was lucky—my first wife is a wonderful woman whose only mistake in life was marrying me. I’m still very close with her and my three children from our marriage. Many of my friends of the Mad Men era were not as lucky.