Life Under A Cloud Of Tobacco Smoke…

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.

Stay frosty…

John Carlton

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  • Ken says:

    Yo John…what a blast from the past. I think we’re about the same age. My mom used to Brylcreem my hair up to about the 3rd or 4th grade. I would return from school in the afternoon and not ONE hair was outta place.

    I’ll tell ya…I’ve met more than one ‘younger’ person, say…late 20’s, who told me they wished they grew up back when we did. They all say things were just ‘cooler’ back then. In lots of ways it was cooler. But that’s another story.

    I heartily agree with becoming a student of history. It makes for a wider and different perspective on many things. And it also provides for richer copy.

  • Vinny says:

    “Mad Men” has rapidly become my favorite show. And thanks to DVR, I never miss an episode! But one of the coolest things about the show… actually, “brilliant” is probably a better word… is that during the commercial breaks, they flash little factoids on the screen about the advertiser or advertising in general. For example, Saturn is one of their sponsors. Did you know that Saturn was named after the rocket engine, not the planet? How cool is that!

    So instead of fast forwarding through the commercials, I actually watch them, just to catch these factoids. Brilliant!

  • Alexis Kauffmann says:

    Caples, Reeves, Ogilvy. I think 90% of whatever one must learn to practice “world class” marketing communication are to be found on these guys’ ideas. The rest come with experience, research, tests and adaptation. Great post, John.

  • WOW. I had no idea this show was out there. As a bit of an American history nerd (especially cultural history), I would be totally hip to this even were I not a copywriter.

    Thanks for hippin’ us to it. I hope it makes it to DVD!

  • barney says:


    I’m a bit more aged than you, it seems. I watched one session of Mad Men, the first, then blew it off … it seemed more like a documentary of known history to me [grin /]. I matured (?) along the same time line as Madison Avenue, grew up on their ads, & learned to ignore ’em. Basic training, you might say … learning to ignore hyperbole & question every statement made in any promotion.

    Good training, ’cause I have to review my own commercial babblings in that same light [groan /].

    In light of your enthusiasm, however, I’ll have to watch a few more episodes to see what I’ve missed. Prolly not as fun as Howdy Doody or Mighty Mouse, but maybe more educational. Like a lot of folk, I don’t think of things that have happened in my lifetime as *history*, per se … maybe you’ve adjusted my thinking. Thanks.

    Make a good day …
    … barn

  • hi john thank you for putting up just a good and informative blog i realy love reading it and learning a lot of new skills and ideas from this
    nice article thanks
    Alex Wong

  • Bal says:

    John – thanks for reminding me to watch this show. I’d forgotten I wanted to see it.

    One thing I would add to this is that science fiction – good, hard science fiction – is also one of the most mind-opening venues available. You won’t usually find such fiction on TV or even in the theaters. It’s disappointing as all get out that with all the great sci-fi in literature, that the producers can’t figure it out.

    What would be an interesting sci-fi story would be one of “marketing in the future,” say the year 2055, when I’ll have traveled around the sun 100 times (unless the universe opens a way for me to have a good adventure off this rock).

    Perhaps – when we’re all directly mind linked (we’re on the way to that now), advertisers will be able to let everyone know about their products in such enticing ways without headlines. Imagine being suddenly inundated with images that flood the frontal lobes dopamine (pleasure) and keys it to a product image.

    What a story that could make.

    Great post to think-forward on.


  • […] Bad Men – Today, 02:03 PM John Carlton had a blog post about it a couple of weeks ago, so I sat my DVR to record them. It’s starting to grow on me. […]

  • […] human behavior. Plus the lessons in advertising history are great. Carlton’s take on the show is here. Well worth a read. […]

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