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Mad Men stopped being about advertising just when advertising got interesting

The ad industry has changed, but Sterling Cooper & Partners hasn't, really.
The ad industry has changed, but Sterling Cooper & Partners hasn't, really.
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the previous episode of Mad Men over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by education reporter Libby Nelson and political writer Dylan Matthews. Keep checking in all week long for new entries.

Libby Nelson: The Massacre of Glencoe scene that Dylan analyzes so well sums up one of Mad Men's most underrated virtues: beneath all the understated character drama and late-'60s anomie, it can be a very funny show, in part because it's not afraid to get a little ridiculous.

One of the reasons I've enjoyed the past two episodes so much is that for all the darkness in "The Forecast," they've both made me laugh — both with visual gags, like Don's patio furniture perched in his living room, and with longer sequences, like Pete's argument with the nursery school director.

When Todd and Dylan say Sterling Cooper & Partners has become a dinosaur, its time passed, it makes me wish that Mad Men had spent more time on the business of advertising in the late 1960s. We used to see Don and Roger struggling with the new generation and the influence of the counterculture, from mocking the Volkswagen "Think Small" campaign to their ill-fated campaign for Jantzen swimwear, which was too provocative for the conservative brand. The introduction of Stan Rizzo and Michael Ginsberg and Joey Baird in the office was thought to signal a generational turnover: these were the people who would make the firm modern.

But Mad Men has virtually abandoned this storyline. Now Stan is the only one left, and the latest iteration of Sterling Cooper is still making the same kind of ads: appeals to emotion, nostalgia, and family. The definition of family might be changing, as Peggy's Burger Chef ad acknowledged. And SC&P's decision to use Pima, the art photographer, to shoot an ad suggests that it's in line with at least some of the trends. (Look at ads from the late 1960s and early 1970s, and it becomes clear that anybody not featuring photography was very behind the times.)

But elsewhere on Madison Avenue, other agencies were co-opting the counterculture. Crest borrowed its slogans. A motor oil company put a peace sign in its print ads. Dodge announced the "Dodge Rebellion." It's not clear whether SC&P has followed this path in its other work, because advertising has receded more and more from the stories Mad Men is telling. The agency's creative work is less central to the plot now than it ever has been. In the first few seasons, the companies Sterling Cooper worked with and the ads it created had more than a symbolic role on the show. But as SC&P's billings grew, the importance of its work to the plot has receded.

That's too bad for a couple of reasons. First, the client work provided some necessary structure among Mad Men's otherwise meandering plotlines. Second, there were some great stories to tell on Madison Avenue in the late 1960s — stories I wish intersected with Mad Men's universe.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as McCann was acquiring SCDP, an agency called Wells Rich Greene was creating iconic advertising. (One of their clients was Alka-Seltzer; I can sing the "plop, plop, fizz, fizz" jingle because it was stuck in my mom's head for about 30 years. It was that good.) Like SCDP, Wells Rich Greene broke away from an existing industry, and like SCDP it had a lot of clients who weren't market leaders. But this freed up that firm for brash, creative, modern-feeling work.

Its chairman was a woman: Mary Wells, roughly Joan's contemporary, who walked out of Jack Tinker and Partners — a smaller agency within McCann Erickson that was doing some of the era's most exciting work — in 1966 when the group wouldn't give her the presidency due to her gender. She went on to pull off feats Don Draper and Roger Sterling would envy, including winning Ford as an account after a personal conversation with Henry Ford when her agency wasn't even in the running.

Wells Rich Greene, in other words, was everything SCDP wasn't: forward-thinking, counterculture-adapting, future-oriented. Mary Wells was already living Peggy Olson's dream. I love the stories Mad Men has told. But part of me wishes it had been able to stay a bit more grounded on Madison Avenue and engage with how its business was changing beyond the walls of Sterling Cooper.

Read the recap, and come back next week for discussion of the next episode.

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