Mad Men, Advertising and Addiction

Mad Men returns for its third season this Sunday, on AMC.   I caught up on the first season on DVD, and found it to be excellent in terms of interesting storylines and characters, along with great production values.  A large part of what makes the show so interesting (and discomfiting) are seeing what’s changed and what hasn’t since 1960’s America.  The show centers on a Madison Avenue advertising agency.  I haven’t seen the second season, but the first at least, focused a lot on how the (m)ad men pitch their creative ideas to clients and eventually American consumers.  The characters’ interpersonal dramas often dovetail with the product desires they are trying to stir up. Advertising is the subject of the great book I just finished by Jean Kilbourne, Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think And Feel (it was originally published as Deadly Persuasion; Snell Library has both editions.)  Her book focuses on the impact of the 3,000 advertisements we’re exposed to daily-while most of us think ads don’t affect us, Kilbourne demonstrates that they have a cumulative and corrosive influence.  Her book was published in 2000, and reading it what was scary to me was recognizing so many ads from my childhood and adolescence that I wouldn’t have thought I remembered but must have been percolating in my subconscious.  I had a middle school classmate who collected Absolut ads, and I even had one of “Absolut 24th” on my bulletin board as a kid. (I think I was more into shopping, Christmas and presents at the time, and didn’t really think of it as a vodka advertisement).  She pays particular attention to issues of addiction-especially food, alcohol and cigarettes-and how advertisements normalize unhealthy and dangerous behavior towards these substances.  She also concentrates on young women and I was startled to see a pre-fame Mischa Barton in a Calvin Klein Kids ad, illustrating the differences between how men and women are depicted, and it’s sad and troubling in light of Mischa’s history.  I highly recommend the book, and bookmarked a number of startling and disconcerting facts such as, “Ten percent of drinkers consume over 60 percent of all alcohol sold…if every adult American drank at the ‘safe’ level according to federal guidelines, which is no more than one drink a day for a woman and two drinks a day for a man, alcohol industry sales would be cut by about 80 percent. As one researcher said, ‘Though problem-free drinking does exist for great numbers of people, it is at such picayune levels that it would sustain only a fraction of the present alcoholic beverage industry'” (156). Kilbourne does not see advertising as the root cause of these problems, but she does see it as an exacerbating force and one that focuses just on the individual’s responsibility (and the need to buy a product) instead of the broader social picture: “The wider world of discrimination, poverty, child abuse and oppression simply doesn’t exist in advertising.  There is never the slightest hint that people suffer because of socioeconomic and political situations that could be changed” (296).  It was also interesting to read about the collaborations between AOL and Time Warner on 1998’s You’ve Got Mail prior to their merger/purchase agreement in 2000.  Also, in addition to the many regular ads she features, there are a few fake ones from Ad Busters-and one of my absolute favorites is for “Mammon” and I was able to find an online link.  As one of the commenters notes, I love how it riffs sharply on both financial planning ads, and on the wish to see religion as a just another self-serving product. Kilbourne also draws the link between the unsuccessful War on (illegal) Drugs and the differences between how illegal drugs are treated and drugs like cigarettes and alcohol, which are legal but kill a greater number of Americans.  She was formerly an alcoholic and Can’t Buy My Love, also deals with this addiction. I’m just starting Beautiful Boy, this year’s First Pages book for incoming freshmen that charts “a father’s journey through his son’s addiction” to meth.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

4 thoughts on “Mad Men, Advertising and Addiction”

  1. Very interesting– advertising is actually on my mind quite a bit. It’s a little creepy to know that there are those out there making ads who may know my own mind and motivations better than I do! For those who don’t know, Jean Kilbourne made the classic documentary Killing Us Softly (subtitle Advertising’s Image of Women). I remember the first time I saw it (around college). It was rather chilling.

  2. I also remember reading a magazine article in the last few years (I think it was in Allure, but I couldn’t find it online) that talked about how smokers in particular have very vivid memories of the first smoker they knew. And it’s a very glamorous image of an idealized babysitter, teacher, or some other older adult who seemed cool to them.

  3. Also interesting is the difference in older advertisements that were text-heavy and focused on just showing the product, or a factual description of what it actually did, like this or this from the Duke Emergence of Advertising in America digital collection. It was the era of Mad Men (and a little earlier) that started using psychology and emotion to sell products. Think of current ads that barely show the product at all, and just sell a lifestyle, compared to the images from the Duke advertising archive.

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