I hate it when I discover a show on TV that forces me to watch it compulsively.
See, my private vision of myself is of a suave, worldly guy who nurses a beer in an overstuffed leather chair while reading good literature and expanding my mind with Big Thoughts.
In reality, I keep finding my ass welded to the couch instead, riveted to mindless visual crap on the tube. (I love “Whacked Out Sports”. So sue me.)
I’m so ashamed.
But, heck, I gotta stay involved in the culture (or so I keep telling myself).
So, every late summer, I check out the new offerings. Besides, HD is so bitchin’ to watch, it’s like television has been reinvented all over again.
The new show that’s got me obsessed is “Mad Men”, a rare series on AMC (the cable channel that usually shows old movies, mostly from the MGM catalog). It’s not on HD — big minus — but it IS the brain-child of a former Soprano’s producer. (How HBO lost the bid on this show, I’ll never figure out. It’s getting shockingly-good press, and the water-cooler buzz is amazing.)
The “mad” part refers to Madison Avenue — circa 1960. Easily the most classic year of the most classic period of advertising seen by our civilization. It’s a period piece, and they’ve paid excruciatlng attention to detail: Everyone chain smokes, the guys wear thick glasses, globs of Brylcreem, and fedoras (the hat disappeared from fashion right after John Kennedy got elected prez in the autumn of 1960 — part of his “youth appeal” was his habit of not wearing a hat)… and racism, sexism and religious bigotry is so ingrained, there is zero self-consciousness about behavior that — today — would be considered at best offensive, and at worst criminal.
You keep finding yourself stunned by passing comments, by the treatment of women (who are called girls and regarded as intellectually inferior), by the casual alpha male refusal to take ulcers, sobriety or fidelity seriously on any level. (Trust me — the drug and sex fueled immorality of the 1980s have got NOTHING on 1960.)
I love period stuff. I was just a kid back then… but this was the golden age of the super-agency, when John Caples was still around, Rosser Reeves was just getting reved up, and David Ogilvy was writing his most famous copy. Most of the ad and copywriting books on my shelf are from this period.
Sure, the ads are all about slogans, with lots of graphics (mostly paintings by damn good illustrators, since photography didn’t print so hot yet)… but salesmen were still in charge.
It was a different world back then… bad in many obvious ways, oblivious of psychological and physical health concerns (doctors smoked in the exam room), and you gotta wonder how anything ever got done when nearly every guy in the agency started drinking — heavily — at noon every day. In fact, you were regarded with suspicion if you weren’t a lush. (No promotion for you, Mr. Teatotaler.)
You can draw a straight line from the online advertising of today, clean through those late-fifties/early-sixties days, on back to the “official” beginnings of direct response in the heydays of the late 1800s.
You can laugh at how naive they seemed back then… but these are your ancestors, working away at the new-fangled IBM Selectrics after the exact same goals you’re after with your plasma monitors and laptops. (And really, we aren’t all that smart today… and a good case can be made that we’re going backwards intellectually, Devo-style, in spite of technological spurts.)
People often ask me for “extra” secrets to getting really good at marketing and copywriting and advertising in general. What they usually expect to hear is some overlooked secret about technique or some hidden tactic I’ve been keeping from everyone.
But you wanna know one of the really juicy, extra-advanced secrets to getting really good?
It’s becoming a student of history. Not just advertising history, but the history of our culture, of language and art and war and technology. We do very much live in exciting times, and the online adventure is as much a sci-fi story as anything else humans have ever experienced before.
But nothing has happened in a vacuum.
There are precendents to every detail of modern life. We tend to take things for granted… but that’s thinking inside the box, and that kind of stunted non-imagination is for losers.
History is the easiest way to expand your consciousness (without drugs, even), and to get the Big View of life (where all the truly mind-blowing revelations like to gestate).
Most folks fear history because they can’t see how it’s relevant to modern life. (Plus, it seems to be centered on lots and lots of reading, and that scares Americans.)
Just get over it. History is where genius finds inspiration, and where the most creative among us can put their ideas to the test.
Just catch a couple of “Mad Men” shows. It’s got a good series of plots going — ala the Soprano’s — and it’s a joy to watch. Well written, tightly edited, just a blast to veg out and absorb. I was years away from being a teenager back then, but I sort of remember the Zeitgeist of the period. So I’m mostly watching it as a stranger to the era, too. Don’t think it’s not for you just because you weren’t even a glimmer in your daddy’s eye in 1960.
Expand your horizons. Get a well-studied, documented taste of what life was like for your immediate ancestors in advertising.
The show comes with my highest recommendation.