Selling the Salesman
The hit AMC television series Mad Men has kindled renewed interest in the mores and styles of the 1960s (the show’s lush production design consistently gets Emmy nominations), as well as in the methods and, yes, madness of advertising. This map links Mad Men to a few of its inspirations, and explores some of the history of the industry that tells us what we want.
Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner cites The Hucksters, the film starring Clark Gable based on Frederic Wakeman’s trashy and tremendously popular 1946 novel, as a primary inspiration. In both the film and the series, sadistic clients bully ad execs adept in the craft of huckstering.
Vic Norman (Gable) throws himself into his work even when the jingles are as lackluster as “Get to the counter and get there quick / Buy a bar of Beautee Soap.” In the Mad Men episode “The Wheel,” Don Draper (Jon Hamm) flashes photos of his then-wife and kids onto a conference room wall to pitch Kodak’s new slide projector. The device, he narrates, “is a time machine. It goes backward and forward, and it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called ‘the Wheel.’ It’s called ‘the Carousel.’ It lets us travel the way a child travels—around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.” Given Don’s rocky past and dysfunctional home life, we know he’s full of it. But he makes us wish the Carousel were still on the market—that’s hucksterism at its best.
Vic Norman (an advertising executive played by Clark Gable in The Hucksters) and Mad Men’s Don Draper (creative director at Sterling Cooper, played by Jon Hamm) are cut from the same cloth—in their case, the well-tailored gray flannel that was de rigueur on Madison Avenue in the mid-20th century. Dashing, dark-eyed and strong-jawed, Vic and Don are self-styled successes eager to put the past behind them. Vic claims he has returned to his Midwestern hometown only once, for his mother’s funeral. Don, a “whore child” whose prostitute mother died in childbirth, has switched identities with a deceased soldier he served under in Korea. Both are ladies’ men. Vic knows how to treat a gal right, but Don is less of a gent—he slides his hands up his paramours’ skirts, ties ladies to the bed, leaves them waiting curbside. Vic’s as fond of himself as he is of the women who catch his eye; when he looks into a shaving mirror, he likes what he sees. Don’s attitude is more complex; a morning shave after a night with a mistress triggers a terrifying realization—the guy staring back at him is as phony as one of his sales pitches.
Just as Don Draper makes a perfect counterpoint to Clark Gable, we can’t watch his ex-wife Betty (January Jones) without thinking of Grace Kelly. Fictional Betty, like the real-life Grace, grew up in Philadelphia, went to good schools, became a model and wears pearls. While Grace goes overseas to become the princess of Monaco, Betty marries Don Draper and settles into suburban life in Ossining, New York. She smokes too much, pouts at the table in her knotty pine kitchen, screams at her kids, fights with Don and sinks into boredom and melancholia.
It takes a few seasons for the feminist movement to catch up with Don’s creative team at Sterling Cooper. While working on a Playtex bra campaign they ask American women, “Are you a Jackie or a Marilyn?” Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), then a frumpy secretary, is told she’s neither—she’s a Gertrude Stein. But Peggy rises through the ranks from copywriter to Don’s second-in-command; now she may just take his job. As an ambitious career girl who helped usher in the women’s movement, Peggy gets the last laugh, achieving through her talent, savvy and perseverance far greater personal influence and power than either Grace or Betty.
In an early scene in The Hucksters, Vic Norman (Clark Gable) coos into the phone to a conquest from whose bed he has obviously recently crawled. This is the sexually charismatic Gable getting into what film critic Pauline Kael called his “Well, sister, what do you say?” mode. But Vic has his virtues. He falls for the beautiful and respectable war widow Kay Dorrance (Deborah Kerr in her American film debut), and he makes a noble attempt to improve the quality of his Beautee Soap campaign. In the film’s most memorable scene, boorish and corpulent soap tycoon Evan Llewellyn Evans (Sydney Greenstreet) demonstrates his approach to advertising: He spits on a highly polished conference table and says, “Gentlemen, you have just seen me do a disgusting thing. But you will always remember it.” We wait for Evans to get his comeuppance, and Vic finally dumps a pitcher of water over his head, telling him, “There isn’t enough money in the world to make me work for you.” Having confirmed his integrity, Vic gets his girl, who dispenses some advice every ad man should heed—“Sell things you believe in, and sell them with dignity and taste.”
Even in the unenlightened postwar 1940s portrayed in The Hucksters, advertising executive Vic Norman is savvy enough to admit that his business has turned the American home “into a combination grocery store, crap game and midway.” More than two decades later real-life ad exec Jerry Della Femina chronicled the industry responsible for this intrusion in his tell-all From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor: Front-Line Dispatches From the Advertising War. Among Della Femina’s many hard-boiled insights is that ad men grovel with fear. “I start worrying about losing a contract the minute I get it,” Della Femina quotes an agency president as saying. “The minute I sign the contract, I’m one step closer toward losing it.” He describes another colleague as “The Mount Everest of Fear,” a phrase that could as well describe the beleaguered Kimberly Agency in The Hucksters. A phone call with abusive client Evan Llewellyn Evans reduces agency chief Mr. Kimberly (Adolphe Menjou) to a quivering sycophant. “You sounded frightened,” says Vic, who overhears the call. “That will give you ulcers. Is that worth 10 million dollars a year?” It’s easy to imagine Della Femina telling Kimberly to take the ulcers—and the 10 million.
In the first season of Mad Men, Don Draper looks at a new ad for Volkswagen and says, “I don’t know what I hate about it the most.” That now-famous “Lemon” ad, produced in the real world in the early 1960s by the agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, touted the exceptional quality control at the end of the Volkswagen assembly line. Along with the “Think Small” campaign, it introduced the Beetle as a utilitarian car that required little gas and less maintenance. Frank and honest, the ads ushered in a new era of advertising.
Little wonder Don doesn’t like them. He tends to skirt the issues in his ads, just as he does in his personal life. When studies link cigarettes with cancer, Don devises a crafty approach for his client, Lucky Strike: “Everyone else’s tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strike’s is toasted.” It doesn’t matter that all tobacco is toasted, or that toasting does not make a cigarette less toxic.
In the wake of the Doyle Dane Bernbach ads, Volkswagen’s U.S. sales soared to nearly a million cars. Don, meanwhile, buys a 1962 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. Clearly, this guy’s on the blunt edge of a trend.
In From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor, Jerry Della Femina chronicles the womanizing, drinking and smoking that Mad Men so faithfully re-creates, and pays homage to David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, Mary Wells (who, like Peggy Olson, rose to copywriting and beyond) and other ad business icons whose specters float in and out of Mad Men episodes. Ominously for old-school firms like Sterling Cooper, Della Femina also reports on the revolution that transformed Madison Avenue in the 1960s, bringing Jews, women and even some honesty into the business. But Don Draper’s team has historically been a bit behind the curve. When a Jewish department-store heiress arrives for a meeting, agency head Roger Sterling drags in the firm’s only Jew, a kid from the mailroom, to make her feel comfortable. Waspy account man Pete Campbell wants to know what kind of TVs “Negroes” buy, so he interviews the black elevator operator. His rival Ken Cosgrove tackles a secretary and pulls up her skirt to reveal the color of her panties—no one in the personnel department seems to care. But so long as Don has sharp-witted Peggy at his side, enlightenment may still join the party. Stay tuned.