Rich Text Article first published as Mad Men: A Very Bad Week At The Office on Blogcritics.
Death. Discrimination. Desire. Defiance.
There might not have been a lot of advertising being created at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce on this week’s episode but the SCDP staffers definitely had a lot of emotion and controversy to deal with. Death, a mugging, racial discrimination, sexual preferences, infidelity, a runaway kid, separation, a new affair and the rekindling of an old one all showed up at the agency. No wonder we didn’t see much work getting done! Dealing with the sudden death of Miss Blankenship certainly cast a pall over the agency and the episode. In usual Mad Men fashion everyone dealt with it all and life at SCDP went on. Not a lot to cheer us up, but a hell of a lot to think about.
Miss B On Twitter
Here’s a tweet I received from one of my twitter friends that got me thinking.
While I don’t remember anyone dying at their desk, I do recall a very tragic incident that happened with some friends and staffers at Benton & Bowles. After a media party, a group of B&B folks went back to someone’s apartment to continue the festivities on their roof top. A few of them were sitting on a hammock anchored between a wall and a chimney when suddenly the chimney collapsed on top of them. The collapse inflicted some serious injury and very sadly took the life of a well liked and talented associate creative director. The incident deeply shocked and saddened all of us for quite a long time. Agencies have always been a close-knit “work hard play even harder” environment and when traumatic events happen they touch everyone deeply.
On a lighter note, all you Mad Men twitterholics saddened over the passing of Miss Blankenship can take heart. There is now hashtag on twitter (#RIPMissB) so friends and colleagues can post personal RIP messages to Miss B. Really. No kidding. Mad Men humor and irony in the digital age…I wonder what Bert Cooper would think of that.
Signs Of The Times
Putting aside the personal and family traumas that found their way into SCDP, this week’s episode also provided an interesting look at some of the social issues swirling around at that time. Prior episodes put the spotlight on the challenges and issues that women faced in the male dominated Mad Men world. This episode also shined the light on the issues of racial discrimination and the lack of acceptance of gays and lesbians. Racial, gender and sexual preference discrimination were evident in most industries in the ‘60’s and they were generally “managed” behind the scenes. In advertising these issues were more front and center because our work focused on brand image and consumer motivation, the agency’s messages and output were on public display and we were constantly managing client expectations and biases. Additionally, the people creating the work at the agencies were part of an eclectic, growing and vocal community that were becoming increasingly more willing to address these issues. Madison Avenue was, in some ways, a Petri dish of converging social issues that yielded some very interesting experiments and outcomes.
Moral Values vs. Business Realities
The circumstances surrounding the Fillmore Auto parts account brought the reality of racial discrimination and Peggy’s new political and social awareness into play in an interesting way. The complex morality of working for a client with some dubious discriminatory business practices collided with Peggy’s gratuitous suggestion to use African American talent in their advertising.
Peggy’s meeting with Abe Drexler brought her face to face with a moral dilemma involving her work on the agency’s Fillmore Auto Parts client who was facing a boycott for refusing to hire African Americans. Abe was intent on publishing his tell-all essay, “Nuremberg on Madison Avenue”, and Peggy immediately saw that as both a questioning of why she would work on such a morally bankrupt client as well as a threat to her job at the agency. In an effort to ease her conscience and salvage something positive from the situation Peggy recommended that singer Harry Belafonte be hired to perform the Fillmore Auto Parts jingle. Peggy suggested to Don that “Maybe it will help them with their image in the South.” Don quickly brought her back to reality when he answered, “Our job is to make men like Fillmore Auto, not Fillmore Auto like negroes.” Not what Peggy wanted to hear.
During the Sixties, discontent and uneasiness over working with clients that had social baggage associated with their business was starting to bubble up to the surface. The Vietnam war, selling cigarettes and alcohol, racial discrimination, etc. were being put on the table as issues that agencies had to deal with. Also, clients began paying attention to making sure they were reflecting the realities of the marketplace and their changing consumer demographics. Major companies like P&G took this very seriously and required their agencies to monitor how many minorities were being used in their advertising and how appropriately they were being portrayed. I worked on three P&G brands….Crest, Zest & Charmin. One of my jobs as an account person was to prepare and submit regular, detailed diversity audits of the talent used in all of our advertising. Times were changing.
The Other Diversity Reality
In the Mad Men days another unfortunate diversity reality pervaded the business. There was a very serious dearth of people of color employed by ad agencies and very, very few made it into the management ranks. At B&B we were were fortunate to have an extremely talented African American, Roy Eaton, as V.P. Music Director in the agency’s creative department. Agencies actually wrote jingles and scored music for radio and television back then and Roy was a master at it. While the employment situation for people of color has improved over time, the agency business still has a long way to go in terms of leveling the racial playing field.
Finally, we knew that Don and Faye were destined for the bedroom but it certainly looks like their relationship will go beyond the parameters of Don’s usual flings. In addition to introducing Faye to his daughter Sally, there is another level of complexity in the relationship. Faye’s role as the consumer research guru at SCDP means that she, Don and Peggy will be working together on the creative direction for the agency’s campaigns. At some point there is bound to be friction between Faye’s principles, Don’s creative ego and Peggy’s growing desire to assert herself creatively. How much of that spills out of the bedroom and into the office remains to be seen.