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Lessons in Irony: AMC’s Mad Men and the Advertising World

Many have noted that cable networks produce some of the better if not the best shows on television of late. The Sopranos arguably started this trend but other shows such as The Larry Sanders Show and Dream On opened the way for more creative shows. Recently Battlestar Galactica and The Wire (possibly the best show in the past 20 years although it and similar shows owe a small debt to Wiseguy, a network show, as a pioneer of the season-long story arc) have shown what can be done with good writing and a dedication to developing complex characters and story arcs. This past summer one show, Mad Men, joined the list of excellent television fare. (Irony hors d’oeuvre: Apparently the term, Mad Men, was coined by none other than the advertising world).

The series focuses on the world of Madison Avenue advertising in the late 50s. The set and costume details alone justify watching a few episodes, but what sets the show apart is the way it captures the highs of American corporate life after World War II and the seeds of the lows to come. The advertising masters drink, smoke, and screw as they manipulate words and images to sell cigarettes, alcohol, cosmetics, and vibrating weight loss devices that happen to have a sex-related side effect.

Irony first course: When the Mad Men must overcome the first wave of restrictions on cigarette advertising the main character who is more than lost and unsure about the changing world offers, “Advertising is based on one thing happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car, it’s freedom from fear, it’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing it’s O.K. You are O.K.” And one is not sure whether he believes he is O.K. or because needs that reassurance at all times he is a master at his game.

Irony Main Course: Unlike shows on HBO or Showtime, Mad Men is on an advertising supported network. So after a scene where characters develop ad copy designed to hide smoking’s harms, one watches the modern advertising created by the characters’ descendants. Of course with DVRs the ads would be missed but even here the show and AMC have a solution. As one clicks–one, two, three–to zoom past the commercials, a frame in the show’s opening credits’ look and feel appears. One stops thinking the show is back. But no, instead the interruption offers trivia about the advertisement and/or the company behind the advertisement about to air. Brilliant.

The person who watches the show in part because of the historical aspect of seeing how the advertising world grew now stops to learn more about advertising and specifically the advertising of the advertiser supporting the show. The move also captures the popup video and factoid culture of the nineties. Perhaps the strategy is perverse, but one can admire the irony of watching a show about how advertising manipulates an audience and then being manipulated into watching the advertising. Of course one could ignore or avoid the trick but then again if the advertiser gains just a few more eyeballs or manages to have the product stick just a little longer the advertisement has done its job. Besides did you know that Jack Daniels never revelaed the meaning of Old No. 7? “The first Friday’s Restaurant was in New York City”? “L’Oreal has designed and patented over 120 molecules” “Heineken was first sold in the US in: the 1880’s”? Well stop and watch and you will learn that and much more.

There are many other ways to commend this show, but I would have to indulge in spoilers to do so.

cross-posted at Concurring Opinions

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