Disclaimer: Read no further if you want to avoid potential spoilers of Mad Men, Episode 702!
Just when I had settled in to write a weekly feature about the marketing principles at work in Mad Men, the show threw me a curveball and aired an episode that was remarkably free of any advertising-related content. Oh, there was a lot going on at the agency in Episode 702: workplace romance, casual racism, horrible treatment of employees by their managers, anxiety over stalled careers, and botched communication between people on different coasts as well as between people who were standing right next to each other — but precious little about the actual work that Sterling Cooper & Partners actually does for clients.
Amidst all those extracurricular activities, the episode touches on one of the show’s persistent themes: that the people responsible for telling the public how happy life could become just by purchasing the right product are at least as unhappy as everybody else. In fact, the characters who are the most skilled in the art of selling the American Dream to the masses — Don Draper and Peggy Olson — are miserable and have personal lives that might charitably be compared to dumpster fires. Peggy in particular, reaches new lows in Episode 702, as she is revealed to have the emotional maturity of a 13-year-old girl who doesn’t get asked to the junior high school dance and is later shown verbally abusing her put-upon secretary in a scene that is laden with depressing racial undertones.
The idea that advertising and other marketing-related fields are heavily-populated by dysfunctional, shallow, often generally awful human beings is not unique to Mad Men. In popular culture, the idea goes back at least as far as the 1947 Clark Gable film The Hucksters, which portrays the advertising industry as a place where only unprincipled scoundrels could succeed. And then there was the 2008 headline from the satirical website The Onion that read, “World’s Worst Person Decides To Go Into Marketing.” During the six decades in between, fictional portrayals of people working in advertising, public relations and other marketing jobs have frequently painted such characters as alcoholics, liars, vain, empty suits, manipulators, irredeemably cynical or general personifications of “What’s Wrong With Business Today.” Over the course of its run, Mad Men has certainly featured a rogue’s gallery of all of the above.
This is the part of the post where you may be expecting me to get all indignant and outraged about unfair media stereotypes, but that’s not going to happen. Generally, I laugh at people who get bent out of shape about stuff like that. It’s like the great Kurt Vonnegut once said: “Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.” Besides, while I do believe that marketing, as a profession, is often drawn with broad, overly-simplistic strokes in popular entertainment, I believe the same is true of most professions. Novels, movies and TV shows are routinely littered with doctors, police officers, lawyers, farmers, politicians, army generals, et. al. who are nothing more than one-dimensional embodiments of persistent, intellectually-lazy stereotypes. It would be unrealistic to expect marketeers to get special treatment in that regard.
Finally, I will say that over the course of my career, I have never observed my peers in marketing to be categorically different than anybody else in the workforce. And I definitely don’t sense that real-life marketing professionals are more prone to Don Draper-esque moral lapses or disastrous interpersonal relationships than anybody else. That said, I hope that Don himself continues to be prone to them. They are what make the show worth watching.