By Jerry Bowyer
I’ve worked in and around media almost my entire adult life, which means (when you really get down to the heart of the matter) that I’ve worked for and around advertisers for most of my life, too. And, if you count your leisure time as a kind of work, so have you. That’s what makes Mad Men important. Not just the internal content of the show, but its very existence, and the business model on which its existence depends. Matthew Weiner wanted to do Mad Men before he did The Sopranos, but the finances didn’t work out. Instead, David Chase recruited him for The Sopranos on the premium channel HBO. The Soprano’s business model (as opposed to the Sopranos’ business model) ran on voluntary payments for service. No ads. It did well for HBO, causing an influx of subscribers (including the Bowyers) who bought HBO just for that one series. Eventually we, and much of the fan base, dropped even that level of aggregation and simply bought new seasons at Best Buy. For the final two seasons, even that level of aggregation gave way to buying seasons on Amazon.
You get the pattern? We’re disaggregating, paying increasingly for what we want and nothing else.
Mad Men is Matthew Weiner’s successful encore to the even more successful series The Sopranos. It is the dream he had to put on hold until he had proven himself in the industry as a writer. At first blush it may seem like a step back towards more aggregation: it was created for AMC, a cable outlet which runs ads. However, at least initially the business model ran at a loss: the production company received revenues from cable at slightly less than production cost. The real money is on the back-end: DVD, Netflix, Amazon, et cetera. The real money made on the show about Ad Men is not in the ads; it’s in the fees.
So most of the money made off of people who will repeatedly binge-watch Don Draper falling will be made by pursuing a model, which causes real contemporary analogues to Don Draper to fall in importance.
The story of Don Draper and the story of Tony Soprano both describe the arc of a man and the arc of an ‘industry’. Both are morally ambiguous, but sympathetic men, which makes their industries the cover of moral ambiguity. Both are characterized by nuance. Don Draper is very good at what he does. There is skill and the skill is admirable. The unthinking critique of advertising by the knee-jerk left has been that it manufactures desire by depending on sexual manipulation based on high priced data analysis from demographers and psychologists, and consumers don’t have a chance against that gigantic machine. That critique is swept into the garbage in the first episode—literally—when Don tosses the psychographic profile from a German Freudian psychologist into his wastebasket. Yes, Don later has a dalliance with a demographer and with her industry, but in the end both of them end up dropped into the trash. The gigantic computer that the successor firm ultimately buys is really more for show than for real analysis. Ads are an art, and to be respected as such. When Peggy gives Don a sketch of an ad where the skirts have higher hems because she thinks that sex is what sells, Don is offended, and tells her that monkeys could do that. Weiner respects the art.
But does he respect the mission? Don is a man who in the words of the Rolling Stones’ musical critique of the ad industry, “can’t get no satisfaction.” He smokes, tries to quit, fails, stops trying, loses a tobacco company as a client, uses that as spin to get other companies, and offers to publicly recant in order to get tobacco back. He’s not in control of his desire. The antepenultimate episode of the series is called “The Lost Horizon.” Don’s desires are unfillable, because the horizon of desire keeps shifting away from him as he chases it across the continent. Tobacco fed Betty (who has her own brush with uncontrollable desire for food) and the family, but (season seven spoiler here) it also kills her in the end.
In the battle between the ad industry and its critics on the left, Weiner seems somewhat neutral, at least as neutral as he was about
Tony Soprano. The Soprano’s series fades out to “Don’t Stop Believing” and Weiner’s recent comments have indicated that this is intentional. Tony has to just keep going, just like the rest of us. So does Don. From season one through to the end, Don (and we viewers) are berated by the left critique of consumerist culture, manufactured desire, Marcuse, JK Galbraith. Don says there is no ‘them’ who are in charge; everyone is just out there trying to make things work. No one is in charge of consumers. Von Mises says that consumers are in charge of business (consumer sovereignty) and that’s nearer to the truth. Bert Cooper early on tries to get Don Draper to meet with Ayn Rand. Cooper’s a generally sympathetic character and clearly an objectivist. This intriguing story line never plays itself out.
In the end Don solves the puzzle. (Final scene spoiler) Peggy tells him that he’ll come back to work: “Don’t you want to work for Coke?” And he clearly still does. Sitting in an Esalen Seminar (or something like it) he chants Ohm and then smiles, not with enlightenment, but with another Draper insight. The solution is implied in the musical fade out: he’ll appropriate the counterculture, capture it and use it to sell Coke. Themes developed by capitalism’s critics are used to sell industrial output sugar water. Capitalism uses socialism as a marketing tool. Brilliant.
But once we know that this is what has happened, once the show which revels in the culture of branding (knowingly using John Hamm’s voice and Christina Hendricks’ figure in ads for cars and perfume which run during the show) reveals that it really is a gigantic manipulation, doesn’t that mark at least the beginning of the popping of the ad bubble? Once the trick has been revealed, how long will people continue to pay for the magic?
I’d say the next thing needed is technological. Yes, the ad industry can eat the counterculture, but can the tech industry eat the ad industry? Stay tuned for our next exciting episode to find out.
Jerry Bowyer was the founding president of the Allegheny Institute of Public Policy, and has been the host of ‘Worldview’, a Sunday- morning political talk show syndicated on approximated two dozen TV stations. Mr Bowyer is a weekly contributor to Forbes.com
The article originally appeared on Forbes.com