I’m glad Mad Men is finally returning to the air later this month after a much longer than planned hiatus. It’s arguably my favorite show on television, though Homeland is up there ever since it came out of nowhere in the fall.
Mad Men’s fourth season concluded a year and a half ago, and the run-up to its fifth season premiere on March 25th is well under way now: Banana Republic is trying to convince you to dress like a Don Draper look-alike, and there have been various ads all over town for the show. The latter present a jump-off point for a discussion of advertising, culture, and values.
Most of the ads were deliberately oblique: they didn’t explicitly mention the title of the show, in order to stoke anticipation for those who know what they were for and curiosity for those who didn’t.
The line that jumped out from the other two paired with it was “Adultery Is Back.” It struck a chord, and in so doing, re-opened a debate.
It called to mind a toast from a wedding I was at a few years ago. One of the groomsmen was giving his speech praising the couple, but he also threw in some tangential commentary that immediately caught my attention. He said, “In our culture, which values obscenity and infidelity, it’s great to see [the bride and groom] whose love is so pure and so right.”
My table, composed of good friends, was a bit thrown off. “That was weird,” I commented. “Does our culture value infidelity?”
No, I submitted. It holds up promiscuity at times, but not unfaithfulness to a spouse.
And I had felt that way until I saw this Mad Men campaign.
Am I way off? Is it obvious that we value adultery? Am I stupid or naïve for even questioning it?
Are fans seeing these ads and saying to themselves, “Sweet, I can’t wait to see Roger Sterling cheat on his wife again!”
The Mad Men copy is not the only one pressing this issue. I recently saw a commercial for a series that compounded the debate: Mistresses, on BBC America. Its tagline is just as provocative: “Adultery is so much classier with a British accent.”
Adultery is a plot point in many shows, an almost inevitable one. One of the easiest ways to create drama is having two characters shack up. If there’s an attractive married woman in a show, it seems writers often feel the only way they can show her off to full potential is to have her engage in a non-marital dalliance, because viewing marital sex has become anathema to audiences.
Besides, of the Ten Commandments to break, infidelity is one of three that are most serious, can be most easily witnessed, and that virtually all of society would agree is wrong, whether members are religious or not. It’s also one of those same three commandments that is more common or realistic to be broken in the average person’s life: I would bet more people have cheated on a significant other than killed someone or stolen something of consequence.
But do we watch these shows because of it? I don’t think I do. (I shouted at my TV when Claire Danes started making out with Damian Lewis on Homeland.)
I’ll concede that cheating is often glamorized in programming, but I’m not sure it is valued. Or is there no difference?
Perhaps the depictions serve a purpose: viewers may like seeing characters commit adultery, but I would venture most do not engage themselves. The appeal then, is vicarious (like shooting someone in Halo but knowing better in real life), voyeuristic, or to affirm a sense of superiority in looking down on flawed characters with the realization that you would not do something that is ultimately a stupid and unsatisfying act.
Stuart Elliott declined to mention the adultery copy in his Times article on the latest ad in the campaign, which continues with some abstract, kinky mannequin symbolism (and does display the title).
Peggy Olson: Sex sells.
Don Draper: Says who? Just so you know, the people who talk that way think that monkeys can do this. They take all this monkey crap and just stick it in a briefcase completely unaware that their success depends on something more than their shoeshine. YOU are the product. You – FEELING something. That’s what sells. Not them. Not sex. They can’t do what we do, and they hate us for it.
That kind of talk cheapens us, sells us short, he’s saying. For a show that is ostensibly about advertising, its ads have a higher bar.
The adultery ad also contradicts what Linda Schupack, executive vice president for marketing at AMC, said in the afore-mentioned Times piece: “Just like the show, we never want to be literal. And we want to be provocative.” They went one for two with “Adultery Is Back.” It’s overtly literal: Here is exactly what you will see on this show.
The ad misjudges what it is that the audience likes about the show. It’s not the nuptial nihilism of the characters. Rather, people love the style, the visual beauty of the actors and sets, weighing the nostalgia pangs and (now-obvious) inequalities of the era, and the tension between perceived idyllic lives lived in New York City and suburbia.
By contrast, the minimalism of the initial teaser ad for the coming season was sublime. The tagged subway posters also made for some clever graffiti.
The ad that best evokes the mise-en-scène of the world in which Mad Men occurs is the poster touting the second season. Don, serious and deliberate, fedora atop his head, standing out only to us in the hustle and bustle of Grand Central Station. The crowded stairs and blurry bodies perfectly capture the time and feeling of a busy, booming era. Every one of those anonymous faces could have a story to tell, but we are hearing his.
“Where The Truth Lies” was the original tagline for Mad Men. Its elegant double entendre describes the show’s “project of digging deeper into the world of advertising. Not only does the show reveal the lies behind the truth posited in advertisements, it also pulls back a curtain to reveal the truth of a decade” and a society.
Any show can have secrets, jealousy, and yes, adultery, if they deem it worthwhile. Mad Men is more than that. Its ads should reflect that. And maybe, today’s cultural values do, too.