August 19, 2011 10:08 pm

The Real Mad Men

An account of advertising’s golden age portrays the business in its best light

Don Draper, of the US hit TV series Mad Men, is a rotten boss and his ad campaigns ring hollow. That’s the unanimous verdict of the 50 or so advertising veterans interviewed in The Real Mad Men.

All of them were at work during Draper’s heyday of the late 1950s and early 1960s. But not only would none of them like to have worked for Draper – they wouldn’t hire any of the people he relies on. Peggy, Sal, Paul, Ken and all those other guys and gals Mad Men fans love – not one of them would have cut it on the real Madison Avenue. They are, apparently, “too phoney”.

Huh? Advertising people who are too phoney? Isn’t that like calling a red-top reporter too dishonest, or a bare-knuckle fighter overly vicious? You don’t have to go along with George Orwell, who thought advertising “the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket”, to believe that anyone who makes his living by telling you that Product A is better than Product B, but who changes his tune when the manufacturers of Product B offer to pay him more than the manufacturers of Product A, might not be entirely trustworthy.

No such doubts trouble Andrew Cracknell in his history of what he calls “Madison Avenue’s golden age”. Cracknell, an ad man since those heady days, agrees with the late creative director Bill Bernbach’s suggestion that while advertising can “vulgarise” or “brutalise” society, it can also “help lift it on to a higher level”.

According to Cracknell, Bernbach’s advertising (as well as that of the countless creatives influenced by his work) achieved this moral elevation by means of light humour and demotic language. Bernbach, says Cracknell, banished straightforward ad copy – beautifully summed up in Kingsley Amis’s imaginary sell-line, “Beer: makes you drunk” – and substituted it with the self-reflexive conceits of a whimsical modernism. Cracknell argues that post-Bernbachian ads say: “Hey, we’re all in this together; you know we’re going to try and sell you something – let’s both enjoy the process.”

Since more than one survey down the years has shown that many people prefer TV ads to the programmes they cut into, Bernbach was plainly on to something. But if history teaches us anything, it’s that it is mighty easy to get people’s attention by deceiving them. Studying the ads lovingly reproduced in The Real Mad Men, I was bowled over again and again by the gorgeous, staccato simplicity of their prose. The “Think Small” campaign that Bernbach, his art director Helmut Krone and writer Julian Koenig conjured up for the US launch of the VW Beetle reads like Hemingway mixed with Chandler. The difference is that while Hemingway, Chandler and every other novelist is trying to tell you the truth as they see it, advertising copywriters just want you to believe what they say.

Cracknell sees what he calls candour in so many ad campaigns that one keeps hoping he might spot a little dishonesty. He never does but he gives the game away during his analysis of a campaign for Braniff International Airways. He says that the problem facing the copywriter was the simple fact that: “An airline is an airline – they fly the same planes, seat you in the same seats, serve the same food.” An ad campaign, in other words, can work only by pointing out non-existent distinctions.

Picasso said that art told lies to help us realise the truth. I’m sure Cracknell is being sincere when he claims that advertising creatives “are not always fuelled by money alone” but that doesn’t alter the fact that ads tell lies to help realise a profit. The lie that Mad Men tells is that Don Draper is a brilliant advertising man because his work is the expression of a troubled soul. That’s why we love him. Far from being “too phoney”, Don is as true to life as Fitzgerald’s Gatsby – and like Gatsby he speaks to the fears we all harbour about our living hollow lives. No wonder real ad men don’t like Mad Men. It faces up to the dread their industry exists to deny.

Christopher Bray is author of ‘Sean Connery: The Measure of a Man’ (Faber)

The Real Mad Men, by Andrew Cracknell, Quercus, RRP£14.99, 224 pages

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