The hit AMC television show, Mad Men, has been riveting and repulsing me since I first started watching it years ago. You’d think I’d turn it off. But there are moments in the show when brilliance comes through and I sit in awe. Then again, there are way too many moments where I’m just disgusted.
In case you didn’t know, Mad Men is a soap opera-ish adult drama about an up-start advertising agency in New York City in the 1960s. The characters are alive and easy to love or hate; the sets are so real it feels like you time traveled right to the sixties; the conflicts, personal and public, are engaging; the dialogue is human, real, and sometimes profound. All in all, it’s no wonder the show is a hit. It’s prime time drama with unique elements. And it’s won 15 Golden Globe awards and 4 Emmys — so far.
So why does it repulse me?
Virtually everyone on Mad Men has at least one psychological problem. The leader of the pack is of course Don Draper, brilliantly played by actor Jon Hamm. Draper has so many demons inside his skull, he’s a walking version of an internal hell. He’s self-destructive with women and booze, but he’s also often a genius at ad campaigns. He’s got so many secrets he might as well call himself Freud’s best candidate for therapy. In fact, he’s not even Don Draper. That’s the identity the character stole long before he became an ad man. Ah, the twists into mental hell.
Of course, I didn’t like it at all when Lane Pryce, a charming character in the show (played by Jared Harris), embezzled money from the company, was caught by Don Draper, and committed suicide. That episode is still stuck in my craw. I wasn’t even going to write a blog post about the show until after that unforgettably sad airing. I liked Lane. But he, too, was deeply flawed. More than that, people unconsciously model what they see. Seeing a strong character choose suicide is not showing wisdom. Again, we unconsciously attract what we believe and expect.
But the psychological issues don’t bother me so much as the business practices the agency demonstrates.
Lying, betrayal, manipulation, head games — it’s the way of life on the TV show. The series reveals the struggling agency is a prostitute that will sell anything for money. Their chief secretary, Joan Holloway (played by Christina Hendricks), even sells her body for a one night (actually, it was a one evening) stand to get a partnership in the agency and sway a voting client to give the agency a new account. And the agency itself takes on a car company they openly believe manufactures unreliable cars. Anything for a buck.
I know something about ad agencies. I’ve studied and written about some of the real life “Mad Men” in history. Most of the names are legends in the business (and sometimes dropped on the TV show for authenticity), but many you may never have heard of unless you go Google them: John Caples, Bruce Barton, David Ogilvy, Helen Woodward, Claude Hopkins, Rosser Reeves, and more.
These people were geniuses at writing copy and creating ads that pulled in sales. Some, like Maxwell Sackheim, created ads that were so powerful in making sales, they ran unchanged for forty years.
What I admire about the real Mad Men (and Mad Women) I studied were their creativity and sincerity. Bruce Barton, the cofounder of BBDO, and the subject of my book, The Seven Lost Secrets of Success, believed sincerity was the key to success. He turned down clients he didn’t believe in, walking away from thousands to millions of dollars.
John Caples, one of the most famous copywriters in history (he wrote the legendary 1926 ad, “They Laughed When I Sat Down At The Piano, But When I Started to Play…!”), said Barton’s secret was one word: sincerity.
I don’t see that secret practiced in the TV show.
Obviously, there is much truth to the stories and characters in the AMC series. You can read plenty of books about that era and discover many businesses practiced that sort of insincere, manipulative advertising, marketing, and selling. Some still do today. I’m not overlooking that reality. I’ve seen it first hand.
Decades ago in Houston I was in the offices of a corporation, there to write a sales letter for the company, when the president took a call and started yelling, “If you want a $#!&**!!! war, then you got it!” He then slammed down the phone. He turned to me, smiled, and continued our conversation as if nothing had happened. It was unnerving. I was seeing “Mad Men” the TV show in action.
I didn’t like it.
That’s the dark side of business; the side that repulses me.
But there’s also the bright side.
What I am pointing out is the fact that many people and businesses practice compassionate capitalism. They practice sincerity. They did then. They do now. They work hard to offer a product or service they believe in, and they market it in ethical ways. I think they should get equal time on the air.
The Internet helped me discover a more loving way of doing business decades ago. That’s when people who should be competitors of mine became affiliates, coauthors, and supporters of mine. It was refreshing to see online businesses openly share in the income, openly share credit, and openly work on deals together. I saw love in online marketing. I practice it, and teach it. I’ve written about it, too, numerous times, and in numerous books. This love based approach to business is alive and well. Not just online, of course, but everywhere — if you look.
But I rarely see that portrayed in the Mad Men series. Sometimes Don Draper will do a noble thing. Often he exhibits genius in creating or analyzing ads and concepts. Sometimes a young executive will reveal strong ethics (usually the character named Ken Cosgrove, played by Aaron Staton) in the show.
Unfortunately, more often than not, the show reveals the shadow side of business and life. If you don’t educate and enlighten yourself, the negative elements broadcast in the show may distort your view of reality; you’ll see the negative even in the positive.
That’s where I want to see a remedy.
Here’s what I suggest:
Quit watching the show. Yea, I know, I’m not going to stop either. Not with one episode left in the current season. So at least give your brain some balance and read some of the more loving business books and read about the more wholesome business characters.
Here are a few suggestions (in no particular order):
Start Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie
The Man Who Sold America: The Amazing (but True!) Story of Albert D. Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Century by Jeffrey L. Cruikshank and Arthur W. Schultz
The Seven Lost Secrets of Success by Joe Vitale
The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising by Kenneth Roman
My Life in Advertising and Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins
Faith and Fortune: How Compassionate Capitalism Is Transforming American Business by Marc Gunther
Philanthrocapitalism: How Giving Can Save the World by M. Bishop
Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis
Screw Business As Usual by Richard Branson
Anything You Want by Derek Sivers
The Real Mad Men: The Renegades of Madison Avenue and the Golden Age of Advertising by Andrew Cracknell
Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the 60’s and Beyond by Jane Maas
And remember: You can be the positive example you long to see.
You may not see it on Mad Men, but you can live it.
Rather than look for inspiration, be the inspiration.
Be the hero.
PS – What books have you read showing a more positive side of doing business? I’d love to know and I’m sure others would, too. Please post a comment and tell us. Thank you.