Mad Men: racism in advertising – Part 1 of 2

by guest contributor HighJive, originally published at MultiCultClassics

Not sure what’s more fascinating: watching the new AMC series Mad Men or seeing genuine adfolks reacting to the show.

The majority of initial criticism came from guys who actually toiled in the era. The comments targeted the authenticity of details, from the number of client meeting participants to the model of typewriters. No way did executives have booze in the office. Presentations should have displayed a sea of layouts. Research reports would never be tossed in the trash. Creative directors didn’t spew such corny lines. Mastermind Matthew Weiner clearly hadn’t done his homework, griped the bona fide Mad Men.


For starters, how reliable are the memories of men who admittedly drank their lunches for decades?

Mad Men, like any other television program, uses creative license to enhance drama. If Weiner had depicted totally accurate images of our business, even PBS and The History Channel would have rejected the concept. Instead, he exaggerated reality, pushed stereotypes and inflated clichés. You know, the tactics still employed by today’s Madison Avenue practitioners. We’re responsible for the blurring between fact and fiction. Why do we get annoyed when outsiders beat us at our own game?

Interestingly enough, there are virtually zero protests over the exclusivity illustrated in Mad Men. Perhaps because we concede someone is finally exposing truth in advertising.

Ladies first.

A modern agency president quoted by Advertising Age remarked Mad Men projected, “A sad but real portrayal of professional women in the 1950s. I found the show mesmerizing mostly because I was haunted by the true reality faced by our mothers, daughters or sisters in the ‘golden era’ of advertising.”

Haunted? Hey, things are pretty scary right now. Granted, White women have greatly benefited from affirmative action—indeed, the segment has reaped the biggest rewards from it. And they definitely have enjoyed the most progress in the advertising industry, arguably taking advantage of being the earliest minority group allowed inside. Yet while 21st century White women are well represented, particularly in account services and media departments, their salaries lag behind the money made by male counterparts. Plus, White women consistently struggle for the power positions.

Regarding the sex object angle, it’s difficult to say. Did the 1960s sexual revolution help alter roles? Was the secretary’s doctor visit and request for birth control pills another symbolic statement from Weiner? We’ll defer to the hardcore feminists on this point. But let’s note that dinosaur sexists like Neil French are being gradually expelled from the current system. Laws to fight discrimination and harassment evolved corporate cultures too, despite the scarcity of publicized charges against Madison Avenue agencies. At the same time, the business continues to feature female professionals and professional females—the latter being the unqualified girlfriends and mistresses of lecherous men with hiring authority.

Adweek interviewed Mal Macdougall, who was a BBDO copywriter on the Lucky Strike account in the 1960s, and he said, “We had never heard the term ‘sexual harassment,’ but it was what took place all the time. The women—with few exceptions they were secretaries, junior writers or ‘young media types’—never, to my knowledge, complained. Married? So what.” Proud to be a Mad Man, no doubt.

Mad Men stars at least one gay character. It’s tough to predict how this minority group will ultimately be represented. But the show does recognize gays were players on Madison Avenue. Since our GLBT expertise is limited, we’ll invite advocates to come out and share their thoughts.

Which brings us to the ethnic minorities—and the completion of this part of the essay.


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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

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