Mad Men to George Lois: “No, F@¢# YOU!” (spoiler alert)

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For the past eight years – more than a decade in Mad Men time – George Lois has been dining out on his hatred of Don Draper’s agency. In his 2010 Playboy rant the self-proclaimed “Original Mad Man”…

• declared that when he first heard the buzz that a “great TV series about the ad game in the 1960s,” he knew “that meant only one thing:” it must deal with the “Papert, Koenig, Lois-inspired” Creative Revolution. It must.

• pronounced upon viewing that the show is merely a soap opera set in an agency of talentless, uninspired hacks, fools, and frauds: “the scum of the industry” that “contaminated the American scene” by producing dumb, dull, obnoxious campaigns for conservative clients.

• asserted that it’s “oblivious” to civil rights, women’s lib, Vietnam, “and other seismic events of the turbulent, roller-coaster 1960s that altered America forever.”

• decreed that by “ignoring the revolution” – i.e., him – the show was “a lie” and “a personal insult.”

• concluded with, “So f*** you, Mad Men, you phony gray-flannel-suit, male-chauvinist, no-talent, WASP, white-shirted, racist, anti-Semitic Republican S.O.B.s!”

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When asked in interviews, creator Matthew Weiner has returned fire. You want personal insults, George? How about…

• from Ad Age, just a few weeks ago: “…George Lois has nothing to do with this show. George Lois has just outlived all of the talented people, as far as I’m concerned, so he’s got the biggest mouth. I was really interested in David Ogilvy. His past is very detailed, and at the same time, unsubstantiated, and that whole self-invention that goes with having an eye on the culture. Don does research, market research. Don talks to individuals. That to me is from reading Ogilvy’s book.”

• from Rolling Stone, 2010: “They asked me to talk to him when the show was coming out, and I was like, ‘Sure,’ and then it became very obvious that everybody who was from the period was like, ‘You don’t really want to — he’s the Tony Soprano of advertising. You do not want to owe him or cross his path — you do not want to be on his radar.'”

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I should note that I’ve gotten a few meals out of Mad Man myself, albeit more breakfasts than gourmet dinners. Among my online Print features…

• I explored the controversy over Imaginary Forces’ brilliant and enduring title sequence and the 9/11 falling man photo, which you can read here.

• I gave Lois’s “…S.O.B.s!” the Worst Design Quote of the Year award, here.

• I interviewed one of L.A.’s top 1960s ad agency people in a piece titled, “Why George Lois Is Wrong About Mad Men.” This one produced quite a bit of feedback, including from Print’s own Ellen Shapiro as well as Steven Heller, with whom I engaged in a bit of a tussle, all of which is here. I also received a good deal of off-the-record praise and support from other design luminaries who prefer to fly below the radar.

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early concept boards and reference ads by Imaginary Forces; creative Directors: Steve Fuller and Mark Gardner.

early concept boards and reference ads by Imaginary Forces; Creative Directors: Steve Fuller and Mark Gardner.

Although Lois’s Big idea is more appropriate to 1960s magazine covers and ads, perhaps some day someone will produce such a TV series. As to what it might look like, Lois provided one scenario in his Playboy tirade: “After hours, when the Sterling Cooper stiffs are screwing their staff, we athletes at PKL were playing ball on the best amateur softball and basketball teams in New York City.”

Mm… no, thanks. But I would tune in for at least a couple of episodes about, say, an art director with a career of habitually stealing credit from others for wildly successful, and even legendary, ad campaigns, magazine designs, etc., especially if sub-plots included that art director’s former partner accusing him of being “the greatest predator of my work,” and worse.

Meanwhile, we now have a complete legacy a show that, like its groundbreaking predecessors Twin Peaks and The Sopranos, has decisively elevated a medium that was once a vast wasteland of shallow entertainments to its current status as a “golden age” of substantive, significant communication. Mad Men has always been rich with stories and emotions that are as much about our current era as it is about the more culturally experimental 1960s.

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As some of you may have heard, the show’s finale aired on Sunday. This provides us with the opportunity for a definitive take on Lois’s big ideas about Mad Men and advertising.

The Creative Revolution: it’s always been integral to the show in large and small ways; since season one’s episode three, to be exact. Back then, Sterling Cooper was a small, old-school 1950s agency with accounts on the level of Secor Laxatives. And their employees were about to be confronted with and resistant to a full decade of, yes, turbulent, seismic changes. Don reacts to Doyle Dane Bernbach’s Volkswagen ad with: “I don’t know what I hate about it the most: the ad or the car.” And, “Love it or hate it, the fact is, we’ve been talking about it for the last 15 minutes.”

Far from being “no talent,” the staff has in fact delivered truly skillful and inspired presentations, albeit small agency victories. No matter how often it’s viewed and parodied, we still maintain a sentimental bond with Don’s Kodak Carousel pitch, if not its cartoonish graphic execution.

But as for the Madison Avenue men being phony gray-flannel suit, male chauvinist, WASP, white-shirted, racist, anti-Semitic Republican S.O.B.s who were contaminating America: yes, guilty as charged. And, structured as such, Mad Men makes Lois’s critiques either false or meaningless. And it’s done so with a subtlety and smart sophistication that’s yet to be rivaled. For example…

• Civil rights:
It’s 1960, and the story begins with Don sitting in a bar – of course – as he conducts a bit of informal marketing research for a cigarette campaign with a middle-aged busboy who “loves smoking,” even though “Reader’s Digest says it will kill you.” The owner feels compelled to make sure the waiter, who is black and got hooked on free cartons of Old Gold during World War II, isn’t bothering him. Don eventually arrives at the tagline, “Lucky Strike: It’s toasted,” to delude the public into believing that it’s “everybody else’s tobacco is poisonous.”

• Women’s lib:
It’s 1967, and the show hints that Peggy Olson may have contributed to the “You’ve come a long way, baby” campaign for women to demonstrate their empowerment by buying Virginia Slims, (which I wrote about here).

• Soap opera:
It’s the series’ conclusion, and the mother of Don’s children has terminal lung cancer, with six months to live, which now feels retrospectively inevitable.

• Vietnam:
It’s 1967, and Don had come up with this justification for Dow Chemical’s manufacturing of napalm: “The important thing is, when America needs it, Dow makes it, and it works.” He also inadvertently critiques the capitalist system by defining happiness as “a moment before you need more happiness.”

• Conservative clients:
It’s the first season, and Sterling Cooper’s biggest client is Nixon’s 1960 election campaign. It’s the final season, and Joan Holloway and Ken Cosgrove are getting rich from producing creative for Dow Chemical.

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• Hacks, fools, and frauds:
Too many to count, so we’ll stick with two auto examples. Don works on the corporate-created, fuel-guzzling, dreadfully engineered, giant fiasco known as the Chevy Vega. And let’s not forget the literal prostitution – and real humiliation – it took to land Jaguar, for which SCDP produce the line, “At last: something beautiful you can truly own.” And the car is so unreliable that the suicidal Lane Pryce can’t even asphyxiate himself in it.

• And finally, dumb, obnoxious campaigns:
Coke is many things. It’s a drug that, when sniffed off your fingernail, will provide a quick fix of happiness. It’s a carbonated mix of chemicals and flavorings that rot your teeth and eat away at your insides. It’s the first thing you grab out of the refrigerator because it’s indelibly branded on your brain. But it’s never “the real thing,” okay? Not ever.

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1969 E-Type Series II Ad.

Don’s original Luckies pitch included this commentary: “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is OK.”

To conclude: Don agonized through the 1960s, and Bill Bernbach’s Creative Revolution – and Lois’s hypothetical series – is over. But it’s the 1970s and Don’s got his mojo workin’ better than ever. Not only that, he’s graduated from small-time ad hack to Major Agency Hack. But I’d much prefer to consider last week’s episode as the actual finale, for a couple of reasons beyond saccharine, irritating hilltop jingles. For starters, I’d sooner fall from a high skyscraper than spend any sort of final moments at Esalin.

But this is also the show in which Don “used to be in advertising.” He’s comfortable restoring a vintage Coke machine, which the owner simply prefers to the new models. And he tries to warn a young grifter not to get stuck in the cycle of fraud and duplicity. He’s even abandoned most of his material possessions, including his Cadillac, the American Dream car. Thus undraped, Don sits by an open road in the final shot. There’s not a billboard in sight. And yet, he seems to be free from fear, and even from the pain of old wounds. In fact, he appears more happy and content than at any time I can recall, prior to Sunday’s transcendent, blissful smirk.

According to Don, a Greek copywriter once told him that the most important idea in advertising is “new.” But maybe it’s not the most important idea in real life.

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By Alex W. White

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