Friday, August 28, 2009

Mad Men: The Early Days?

You know the story. A troubled advertising executive from a small town in the Midwest smokes and drinks too much. He has vague memories of serving his country during an overseas war. He wears expensive sharkskin suits and flamboyant silk neckties, and furnishes his home with pricey antiques.

He carries on affairs in Manhattan hotel rooms and apartments with old flames and aspiring artists. He makes salacious comments about breasts to female colleagues (one of whom was recently promoted from the typing pool to copywriter). He speaks brashly and flippantly to sacred clients, earning their respect by failing to ass-kiss like his account executive predecessors. He runs unconventional meetings with his staff, telling them to not work so hard and to not be so sincere all the time.

Meanwhile, the ad executive’s boss (one of two partners in the sizeable firm) is a diagnosed sex addict; also drinks and smokes a lot; and regularly consorts with high-priced prostitutes in Manhattan hotels—while occasionally taking a phone break to sweet-talk his trophy wife and to inquire about his young child.

Sounds like Mad Men’s Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) and his exploits at the advertising firm Sterling Cooper in the early 1960s on the insanely popular and critically acclaimed AMC series, right?

Wrong. The troubled ad man described above is Vic Norman. The firm is Kimberly & Maag. The year is 1945. The source for all this is Frederic Wakeman’s 1946 near-forgotten novel The Hucksters (which was made into a far less salacious film with Clark Gable as Vic Norman in 1947—which is only available as a 1990 VHS release).

The Hucksters caused a stir when it was published just after World War II. It took readers behind the scenes of advertising, radio broadcasting and American consumer product manufacturing, and what it showed (corruption, greed, shallowness, moral hypocrisy) wasn’t pretty, but it was compelling. Noted researcher Paul Lazarsfeld even conducted a special study of American opinion toward these industries based on whether survey respondents had read the book or seen the movie. The Hucksters may have been bleak in its assessment of the human condition, but then as now, people working in advertising and media made for sexy reading and watching.

So, the next time Don Draper has a flashback, maybe we’ll find the REAL secret behind Mad Men: that Draper and all his Swingin’ Sixties cohorts learned all they knew about advertising from the square old fogies of the squeaky-clean previous generation. Who knows? If someone could get hold of Draper’s resume, it might show that the young Don did an internship at Kimberly & Maag circa 1945.

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