Madvertising

Early in his career, artist Roy Lichtenstein produced a series of paintings based on advertisements. In one of the great cultural ironies of our times, advertising started appropriating Lichtenstein’s paintings. Something similar is going on with Mad Men. Actors best known for appearing in a programme about an advertising agency have now become the commercial spokespeople for major companies. Lichtenstein’s work was ambivalent about advertising, or at least not wholly critical of it, and Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men is equally equivocal. Yet advertising which trades off them makes it seem as if the artists were wholeheartedly in favour of it.

Why, Don, darling! This commercial of yours is a masterpiece. Soon you’ll have all of New York clamoring for Heinz beans!

The way Mad Men sits in relation to the commercials fronted by its actors varies. Christina Hendricks’s ad for Johnnie Walker Red Label recalls the hard liquor consumed by the executives (and 1960s Americans) in the programme, hoping consumers will ignore the repercussions of excessive alcohol consumption shown by the series and only remember how delicious the drinks look poured over ice. It tries to capitalise on Mad Men’s re-invention of classic American styles and fashions to give Johnnie Walker’s outdated brand a retro spin. Hendricks is key here, having customised a classic sex symbol body image towards contemporary desires.

Jon Hamm’s American Airlines commercials have a more complicated relationship with Mad Men. Not only was the airline one of the fictional agency’s clients in the series (the irony of advertising companies by having them as clients within the show hasn’t escaped me) but the voiceover seems to have been modelled on one of Don Draper’s presentations. Hamm’s Sartre-with-abs voice is a big part of why a description of air travel ends up sounding like a metaphysical treatise on the American condition. But Draper’s pretentiously existential monologues about beans and hubcaps are clearly the inspiration behind what Hamm is saying.

As with virtually everything in Mad Men, including mind-altering drugs, John Slattery aka Roger Sterling aka the reason for sticking through shit Mad Men episodes is the trailblazer. Slattery’s deadpan punchline-intoned delivery and Ted Danson-without-horse-parent looks graced Lincoln commercials in 2010. Although Hamm beat Slattery to the luxury car gig with his Mercedes-Benz voiceovers (reminiscent of the pissing contest between Roger and Don in the series) Slattery was the first to extend his Mad Men persona into advertising, and make it acceptable. This was a smoother transition for the actor playing Sterling, who viewers already love as a shameless sell-out.

There is another campaign going on here. These commercials work incredibly hard to repress Mad Men’s misgivings about advertising. There’s no doubt that Mad Men treats advertising as art, or certainly as creative, innovative and disciplined as any other medium of expression, but it always confronts the unscrupulous, amoral and inhumane behaviour of advertising executives and clients. Advertisers generally use TV personalities who symbolise a feeling or an idea that they want their product to capture. What Roger, Don and Joan represent are people betrayed, victimised and held hostage by lives of advertising. It’s almost as if the commercials are aimed at the people who watch Mad Men for the curtains and have extrapolated from this that it was a good time to be alive.

Not exactly an advertisement for a life in advertising.

This probably explains why the most overtly sexy and glamorous actors (and characters) in Mad Men are the same cast members who now feature in commercials. I’m including Peggy here, as Elizabeth Moss did commercials for drug Excedrin, even though the character is rarely sexualised or regarded solely for her beauty, as the ads dreamily play up her cute girlish qualities and gorgeous natural skin tone. You’re unlikely to see Harry Crane hocking Dolce & Gabbana frames or Pete Campbell becoming the spokesman for Regaine (any brands I’ve mentioned should feel free to send me complimentary gifts, but especially the last two!). It’s much harder to re-brand avowedly mediocre characters whose onscreen personas make them the opposite of sex appeal as icons of stylish goods.

American TV is unthinkable without sponsorship and Mad Men’s network AMC is not even one of those boutique cable channels-like HBO and Showtime-that can claim independence from advertisers. So really it’s perfectly normal for the commercial airtime of Mad Men to be filled with ads featuring cast members and for the programme to be sponsored by many of the companies that the executives in the show deal with on a weekly basis. But it’s also undeniably jarring to see an industry and a culture dealt with so ambiguously suddenly depicted in an unreservedly optimistic light by the very same faces.

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