Mad Men: racism in advertising – Part 2 of 2

by guest contributor HighJive, originally published at MultiCultClassics

(Continued from yesterday)

Finding fault with Mad Men’s rendering of ethnic minorities in the advertising industry is somewhat impossible because, well, they barely exist. They’re invisible, in a Ralph Ellison style. Series creator Matthew Weiner hit the bull’s-eye in this area.

As historians like Tangerine Toad have recorded, Madison Avenue circa 1960 emitted a very WASPy aroma. Ethnic minorities were segregated then as they are today. Non-WASPs lived on distinctive planets. At the show’s fictional Sterling Cooper headquarters, it was awfully tough locating a Jewish employee to make a prospective Jewish client feel “comfortable”—agency honcho Roger Sterling snickered, “I had to go all the way to the mailroom, but I found one.”

Writers at Forbes observed, “In the 1950s and ‘60s, despite its image as a progressive industry, advertising clearly lagged when it came to diversity. Unfortunately, it still does. Back then, you had white shoe firms with WASPy staffers working for WASPy clients, while, as one of the characters in Mad Men puts it, ‘most of the Jewish guys work for the Jewish firms selling to Jewish people.’ Replace Jewish with African-American and you get a picture of the industry today.” Technically, you can also swap Jewish with Latino, Asian, Native American, Russian, GLBT and essentially every cultural designation on Earth. (Note: the Forbes writers made faulty comparisons that we’ll pick up later.)

The pilot episode saw adman Don Draper probing a Black waiter for cigarette insights. Not sure why Draper conducted the focus group, as his agency would never entertain wooing non-White audiences. Blacks in the next episode were bathroom attendants and sandwich sellers. No sign of Latinos, Asians or Native Americans so far. Too bad the copywriter who took the secretary on an agency tour in the second installment didn’t venture into the mailroom or janitorial closet. Although it’s a safe bet non-White minorities wouldn’t be spotted at those stations either.

It’s unlikely Mad Men will acknowledge executives for Pepsi-Cola—led by men including Edward F. Boyd—pioneered marketing to Black consumers in the 1940s and 1950s. Or the late Vince Cullers of Chicago launched the first Black advertising agency in 1956, while Luis Díaz Albertini founded Spanish Advertising and Marketing Services, the first Latino shop, in 1962. Hell, even Alex Trebek won’t recognize such trivia.

Then and now, race is the taboo topic. In Adweek’s interview with Mal Macdougall, the original Mad Man admitted, “The booze, the sex, the cigarettes, the suits, the haircuts, the harassment, the office politics, the ‘we own the world’ attitude—even the offices—are absolutely dead-on true.” Yet Macdougall neglected mentioning institutionalized apartheid. Why is it easier to joke about sexual advances that bordered on assault?

Mad Men has not blatantly addressed race; however, Weiner knows it’s out there. Adweek published an interview wherein Weiner said, “The men of that period had a different code and a lot of it is sexist and racist and selfish.” Contrary to the contentions of critical adfolks, Weiner has apparently done his homework. We’ll soon discover if he’s comfortable exploring the industry’s biases beyond anti-Semitism. Sadly, if Weiner sticks to telling an authentic Madison Avenue story, race will stay relatively untouched and deeply buried.

Returning to the notions forwarded by the Forbes writers, it’s important to consider certain realities. Contrasting 1960s Jewish firms to 21st century minority shops doesn’t fly. “Most of the Jewish guys work for the Jewish firms selling to Jewish people” is an incorrect statement. Yes, the early Jewish agencies served Jewish clients. But they didn’t direct messages exclusively to Jewish communities. Doyle Dane Bernbach—a Jewish shop with Jewish clients—produced the famous campaign that literally proves it via the headline, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish Rye.” The Jewish shops’ success at capturing mass markets inevitably lured broader clientele.

The 1960s creative revolution in the advertising industry brought additional significant changes. Italians and various White minorities joined the party. Don’t mean to sound paranoid, but somewhere along the journey, the WASPy, Jewish, Italian and assorted White people combined forces to control the lion’s share of business. Ethnic minorities like Blacks and Latinos were ghettoized, prohibited from expanding outside their respective pigeonholes.

BBDO Chief Creative Officer David Lubars told Advertising Age, “In no way does [Mad Men] reflect the business today. It really doesn’t. In fact, in some ways it really plays into the stereotype that advertising is full of sleazebags, but if you go into most agencies you see a lot of ethics and a lot of good hard work and people telling truth, so this really plays into the whole kind of side of the industry that I personally don’t see.” Lubars is indisputably right on a host of levels, and blindly wrong on others.

As Bill Green of the popular Make The Logo Bigger blog declared, Mad Men is depressing. In more ways than we might realize.

[Whether they realize it or not, Tom Messner, Tangerine Toad, Hadji Williams, George Parker, Bill Green, Jetpacks and other semi-anonymous blog posters contributed to this essay. Thanks to everyone.]

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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.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at

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