The changing nature of consumption, and the changing nature of people – Mad Men and the consumerist fantasy of 1960’s US advertising

Esquire’s Stephen Marche did an excellent piece tying together the themes of AMC‘s Mad Men with a master of advertising and media strategy Marshall McLuhan and his book Understanding Media, released in 1964. McLuhan was a celebrated thinker on the art of advertising in the 1960s and his work functions as a spiritual guidebook to the offices of 1960’s Madison Avenue advertising agencies. One awesome quote highlighted by Marche is the following when McLuhan is discussing advertising and the public’s skeptical reaction to its messages:

To put the matter abruptly, the advertising industry is a crude attempt to extend the principles of automation to every aspect of society. Ideally, advertising aims at the goal of a programmed harmony among all human impulses and aspirations and endeavours. Using handicraft methods, it stretches out toward the ultimate electronic goal of a collective consciousness. When all production and all consumption are brought into a pre-established harmony with all desire and all effort, then advertising will have liquidated itself by its own success.

Dystopian underbelly of McLuhan’s advertising-driven utopia in Understanding Media

Marche notes this trend playing out in the Mad Men series, “The show begins with Don’s genius commercial for Lucky Strike. It’s not cancer-causing, “it’s toasted!” A neat trick. But Betty is now going to die from that trick, as we discovered in the penultimate episode. As for Don, he finds himself in small-town America, where the honest citizens beat him for a crime he didn’t commit and refuse to judge him for the crime he did commit. His con man life has left him as homeless and identity-free as ever.” An interesting observation and one that explicitly ties the essence of McLuhan’s message, that advertising leads to a homogenizing future without difference and want in which all people live the same lives in the same ways as those before and as those who will come after, but one that underlines the dystopian underbelly of it all. Marche goes on to discuss McLuhan’s anecdotal example from post-World War II Italy compared with the United States – namely, the placement of political posters in places where advertisements would be. Marche notes that this is emblematic of the peculiar exploration of the 1960s that Mad Men offers, and that is a 1960s largely devoid of overt political conflict and strife but instead replaced with various characters and their emotional conflicts over the changing nature of their possessions. Marche’s article is some great reading as we lead up to the conclusion of Mad Men but, as “The Milk and Honey Route,” demonstrated, there will be plenty to discuss after it ends.
[Esquire: The Media Thinker Whose Quotes Explain Mad Men]

For more articles on Mad Men:

Mad Men‘s End: Creator Matthew Weiner Interviewed by NPR
Mad Men Season 7 – The McCann-Erickson Villain Plotline
John Slattery’s Post-Mad Men Life

Talked About Scene: Episode 713: Mad Men: The Milk and Honey Route

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