‘Mad Men’ Has Another PC Problem

The limits of the show’s analog world

Mad Men’s Season Six finale closed out the cult drama’s weakest season yet. It sometimes felt like a tailored summer suit: stylish, decadent, well cut, but a little empty. As critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote, “It seems as if everyone is tired of this guy [Draper]: Megan, Sally, Betty, all the partners and colleagues at Sterling Cooper & Partners, Don himself, and maybe the show’s writers as well.”

But had the show exhausted itself? Could it still tell us anything about America?

It had, but it could (and did). Draper remained a symbol of something, although it was no longer sex or even old-fashioned masculinity. His character and the other ad men and women on Mad Men were signs and remnants of an analog world. They were stand-ins for predigital culture — and, in a way, for privacy itself. For an hour, we escaped from data and algorithms and neuromarketing and biometrics and galvanic skin responses. We forgot crowdsourcing and the mining of our shopping data and taste information from our Google searches, and how we are being surveilled by the NSA. We lost touch with location-based social networking (which long ago would have let Megan and Sally know that Don was frequenting bars and other women’s apartments).

Lev Manovich, a professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and the director of the Software Studies Initiative, in an e-mail put it this way to me: “Mad Men presents us with an idealized (since measurement was also part of advertising at that time) vision of a more innocent media industry, before ‘big data,’ ‘predictive analytics,’ ‘data mining,’ and ‘neuromarketing.’ Don Draper operates like a real modern artist, without numbers, graphs, or computers limiting or guiding him in any way.”

This season shadowed the real-life history of the period, from Robert Kennedy’s assassination to the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, yet it never touched upon the revolution that was happening at IBM. We never heard about IBM’s major System/360 or the 2420 tape drive the company introduced for it in 1968. (The first heart transplant, by Dr. Christian Barnard, warranted only a brief mention.) The first mass-market desktop minicomputer by Hewlett-Packard also passed by in 1968 without a mention. The show didn’t care for the technology that ultimately would leave Mad Men’s commercial romanticism in the dustbin of focus groups and data scraping.

A case in point: During the finale’s pitch meeting, Draper sells the client, Hershey’s, with a cornpone misty-eyed riff about how a chocolate bar was love. Then he breaks into a second, desperate, truthful counterpitch: He, an orphan, grew up in a brothel and the chocolate bar he would eat alone in his room was “the only sweet thing in my life.” Both approaches were miles away from today’s advertising, where eye-tracking studies inform the placement of online ads. Neither had anything in common with modern political ads on television, concocted after sample voters’ skin and eye responses have been measured while they watched them. (As the New York Times Magazine recently reported, in “Data You Can Believe In,” Obama’s 2012 campaign was madly data driven, a realm where “political gut instinct” was considered “outdated and misguided.”)

Mad Men serves as a bulwark against not only the massive changes in advertising but also the radical shifts in our understanding of our private lives. This month, we were forced to recognize anew that data collected in the name of advertising apparently can find its way to state intelligence agencies. Few privacy laws protect us. To some extent, the thrill of Mad Men rests in how untracked its characters’ life experiences are: Characters can have multiple affairs, unknown former identities, and even secret spawn. (On the show, there are no Web sites where angry spouses, ex-lovers, or coworkers could post, “Don Draper: What a cad!”)

Draper, Peggy Olson, and the rest of the Mad Men universe are free of contemporary contamination and violation. They are intuitive artists, albeit artists of consumption: Draper, the Bebop Man of advertising, riffed (unsuccessfully) in a campaign for Royal Hawaiian Resort — “Hawaii, The Jumping Off Point” — a slogan paired with an image of footprints in the sand, which reminded everyone else in the room of suicide. Olson dreamed up a Rosemary’s Baby–themed children’s-aspirin campaign. They sought inspiration late into the night rather than crunching metrics along with their band of “creatives” at Sterling Cooper & Partners. As Draper’s moral corruption increased, he resembled the cliché of the alienated, excessive, technophobic (and sometimes ugly and amoral) artist. He was a Madison Avenue Jackson Pollock.

Meanwhile, Peggy’s romantic subplot this season only underlined her singular creative talent that had allured her boss Ted Chaough: Ads sprang from Peggy’s mind like she was an Athena in kitten heels.

According to Mad Men, old-fashioned selling — and selling out — is something we should be nostalgic for; the closest we were going to get to art. With the exception of the consumer-research consulting given by the blond Dr. Faye Miller in Season Four, almost all of Mad Men’s selling is done over drinks or the cathode ray of the television.

The question remains, though: How long can the show pander to this escapism?

“Lately, the phrase ‘The best minds of my generation are spending all their energy to figure out how to get people clicking on online ads’ has been frequently in my mind,” says CUNY’s Manovich. But will the final season reference the clickable future, or will it continue to insulate us from it? Will today’s Me 2.0 universe finally be foreshadowed?

More likely, we instead will continue to lull ourselves to the sleep with the show’s chromatic, Knoll-laden offices and all that booze, forgetting, for a therapeutic hour, the world we live in.

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