My favourite TV drama series Mad Men is back on our screens for its final epsiodes and I for one can't wait to see how it will end. I've been following the lives of these 1960s New York advertising people and their partners for nearly eight years and it's been a pleasure to get to know them and see them develop, especially the anti-hero Don Draper, a man for our times.
Their business is a success but their personal lives are disastrous. Top of the pile is Don Draper, suave, sophisticated, fake- a man who has made his way to the top through a combination of huge natural talent and dogged self interest. Other protagonists include his business partners Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell, both in advertising because of their inherited money and connections than any great ability.
Much of the tension in their advertising agency is the same as can be found in any office- the war of attrition between the creative entrepreneurial types and those who want to run a steady business. Both Roger and Pete recognise that they need Don’s creativity. “That is a very sensitive piece of horseflesh. He shouldn't be rattled!” says Pete.
In fact their appreciation of him is in inverse proportion to his contempt for them as the people who attract and schmooze clients. Neither actually understands what Don Does. Roger says to him, “I can never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you're doing nothing.” In Pete’s eyes, advertising is “all about what it looks like” which reflects the common view that marketing is a lie dressed up in tinsel.
Living Like There's No Tomorrow
Don is a success in his job because he has learnt what makes human beings tick. However the way he learnt it- as an abandoned child brought up in a brothel- has made him cynical about life. This cynicism seems to be the key to his character. “There is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent,” he proclaims.
On a different occasion, he explains, “You're born alone and you die alone, and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I'm living like there's no tomorrow, 'cause there isn't one.” To underline the point, “It's your life - you don't know where it's going but you know it ends badly.”
What makes Don's character so interesting is that his cynicism is tinged with a sadness that comes from the disappointment of knowing what life could be like in an ideal world, a theme that goes back to Adam and Eve gaining knowledge at the loss of Eden. He remains true to himself and tries to be honourable despite his view of the world.
This existential view of life grew rapidly in the fifties and sixties and is now probably the dominant view, whether conscious or not, of people in Western society. The older Roger Sterling, with his humorous quips in every situation, is even more cynical than Don but more amoral, with no time for Don’s angst ridden philosophy, “Your kind with your gloomy thoughts and your worries, you're all busy licking some imaginary wound.”
The Greatest Thing You Have Working For You
When it comes to business, Don may be supremely cynical but his insights are invaluable to anyone wanting to understand advertising. Don, drawing on his own experience, sees exploiting the need for something lost or missing as the key. His famous description of the Kodak photo slide carousel hinges on nostalgia, namely the need for “a place where we know we are loved.” Similarly, he observes that teenagers are “mourning for their childhood more than they’re anticipating their future, because they don’t know it yet, but they don’t want to die.”
Conversely, he opines, “The most important idea in advertising is ‘new’. It creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion.” The link between these apparently contradictory needs is in Don’s comment, “We’re flawed because we want so much more. We’re ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had.”
“What is happiness?” he asks rhetorically. “It's a moment before you need more happiness.” He makes people seem pretty desperate in their existential world. It’s a matter of opinion whether, as Don believes, “People want to be told what to do so badly that they'll listen to anyone.” Actually they are more likely to listen to Don because, as his ex-wife Betty says, he is a “gifted storyteller.”
Anyone who wants to succeed in business needs to tell a compelling story that engages the customer. Don uses his skill just as much when pitching to clients. And of course he uses it as a weapon when seducing women, where he adds to his armoury good looks and sharp suits.
"Love Was Invented By Guys Like Me"
Don’s cynicism extends to his love life in Mad Men. “What you call love was invented by guys like me… to sell nylons.” Having said that, it is clear that Don needs love and even realises it, it’s just that his cynicism prevents him giving of himself in the way that’s necessary in order to receive it.
Anna, someone who knows him well, makes an insightful comment on Don’s character, “The only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are alone.” Instead he either manipulates the women he seduces or indulges in shallow sexual encounters. Although his relationships end because of his constant yearning for something different, he always feels the guilt and regret of a human being who feels empathy.
His inability to sacrifice himself, even in his own self interest, makes him disloyal to his women and to his colleagues. Despite his need for connection, he is neither a team player nor a good husband. One of his heroic qualities is his unwillingness to compromise but this is a flaw when it comes to relationships.
Don Draper's complexity makes him one of the most interesting characters ever to appear in a TV drama. He is both admirable and disgusting, honest and deceitful, honourable and disloyal. Ultimately he is a flawed hero and that is the best we can aspire to be in the modern world.
I hope he finds peace but I fear that it will 'end badly' for him.
Mad Men can be seen on Sky Atlantic on Thursdays at 10pm. This blog was written by Paul Lewis, owner of the Winchester based marketing consultancy Seven Experience. You can connect with him on Google+ and LinkedIn