9/11 and the Fall of Mad Men


Mad Men season five… about time! But that new outdoor ad of the guy suspended in white space… what’s the big idea? It’s certainly eye-catching. And it’s already become controversial after just a few days. In those respects it may be meant to announce “Don Draper: the George Lois years.”

People are offended by the 9/11 association. It’s something AMC has been aware of since 2007, and most dramatic when seen on Manhattan’s bus shelters, where the plexiglass superimposes the city’s surrounding buildings over the falling mad man. But of course, he’s been falling ever since the show’s very first episode.

The opening sequence first aired five years ago, and I’ve been showing it to my design history classes ever since. It’s even earned a spot in the new Meggs’ History of Graphic Design… but more about that book in a future column.

Students discussions about the clip have always been lively. We’d begin by considering various interpretations. Then we’d talk about other visual references. Here, the responses have been numerous and varied. There’s Saul Bass, from his early days through to Casino, and, of course, the many and ever-ongoing Bass homages. There’s the Twilight Zone intro. There’s Robert Longo. And from our earlier Constructivism lesson, there’s the Stenberg brothers’ 1927 Daddy’s Boy movie poster, with its hapless protagonist frozen in mid-plummet, surrounded by walls of blank, uniform, Modernist skyscrapers.

Eventually I’d push my students to think beyond the art and design box, to consider how and why these credits – and the show itself – have such resonance in our 21st Century culture. And then I’d watch the shock of recall and recognition start to sweep through the classroom. But those days are over.

This 9/11 connection hasn’t been a big secret. On the other hand, it hasn’t really been very widely acknowledged… until now. Imaginary Forces’ rich, subtle, and iconic motion graphic had left much to our imaginations. But the poster leaves us with practically nothing, both literally and figuratively. Layers of subtext are lost, and less is… less.

Without knowing what to expect beyond the indication of Don’s increasing isolation from, apparently, everything, it’s impossible to speculate about other, better design options. But it’s a shame that AMC’s marketing creatives couldn’t have come up with anything more innovative. After our longer-than-usual wait, all intrigue and excitement that could have been generated has instead been diluted, and, yes, diverted. And finally we’re left with a poster that seems to ask, just what are we falling for here? More of the same? And perhaps more obviously than in the past?

I certainly hope not. Creator Matthew Weiner recently said that he tries to “shake it up and dump out the milkshake and rinse out the glass and start over…. You like chocolate ice cream? I can’t make richer chocolate ice cream. I’m going to make orange sherbet this year. And if you don’t like it, you don’t like chocolate ice cream. It’s still ice cream.”

Food for thought.

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Related Imprint features:

Why George Lois is wrong about Mad Men

Worst Mad Men quote of the half year, from George Lois

Mad Men Barbie dolls

A Saul Bass book… finally!

11 thoughts on “9/11 and the Fall of Mad Men

  1. Jaqi Vigil

    When I first saw these posters in L train subway stations I couldn’t help but wonder what the graffiti artists and poster saboteurs will make him fall towards. So far I’ve only seen him fall into the mouth of a giant monster.

  2. Pingback: [Dailies] “Unconscious Mind,” “Mad Men,” “For Your Consideration,” “Lucky Elephant” - Blog – FWD:labs

  3. Michael Dooley Post author

    That some believe, because they didn’t notice, the new ad’s 9/11 reference is therefore inconsequential has been… duly noted.

    I’m still disappointed that the poster simply reworks Imaginary Forces’ excellent opening title sequence rather than explores new creative territory. A bit lazy, wouldn’t you say?

  4. erica aitken

    I always understood the opening sequence as an illustration of how our ad heroes lose themselves in a world of consumerism – then and today. Simplistic, I know. But I admired the elegance of the execution.
    (And, thank you Steven Heller, for the graphic associations. Wonderful)

  5. Michael Dooley Post author

    I appreciate your responses, James and Amy. For the record, AMC was aware of the 9/11 reference in the title sequence before the program ever aired. This from Art of the Title’s interview with Imaginary Forces.

    I wouldn’t think for a second that the new ad was meant to be exploitative or hurtful. That wasn’t my point, nor is it my issue. But I also stand by my assertion that the network knew that the falling man in isolation would make people more aware of the connection. I respect their professionalism and intelligence far too much to believe otherwise.

  6. Steven Heller

    Frankly, I always thought the Mad Men icon was based on Saul Bass’ Vertigo image: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_0rtgvZUDGIM/S6v1JPGT-LI/AAAAAAAAABg/q21GtcCQ-yk/s1600/vertigo.jpg Which influenced Peter Gunn’s title sequence: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CE447Qv6BdQ Which harbors a curious relationship to Alvin Lustig’s book jacket: http://farm6.static.flickr.com/5094/5568747695_de928ce1e8.jpg And that reminds me of this: http://draftingmanuals.tpub.com/14263/img/14263_149_1.jpg Which brings us back to Bass: http://wellmedicated.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/west_side_story.jpg

  7. Steven Heller

    Frankly, I always thought the Mad Men icon was based on Saul Bass’ Vertigo image:
    http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_0rtgvZUDGIM/S6v1JPGT-LI/AAAAAAAAABg/q21GtcCQ-yk/s1600/vertigo.jpg
    Which influenced Peter Gunn’s title sequence:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CE447Qv6BdQ
    Which harbors a curious relationship to Alvin Lustig’s book jacket:
    http://farm6.static.flickr.com/5094/5568747695_de928ce1e8.jpg
    And that reminds me of this:
    http://draftingmanuals.tpub.com/14263/img/14263_149_1.jpg
    Which brings us back to Bass:
    http://wellmedicated.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/west_side_story.jpg
     

  8. James Nesbitt

    Sometimes a falling man is just that, a falling man. I agree that the intro sequence is a mish-mash of iconic Design, Advertising, and Film, but I heartily doubt that they would reference such a tragedy becuase they needed publicity or to stir the pot. The show’s never been about pulling stunts to get viewers. It has always depended on great storytelling and it’s always paid off.

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