“Objectifying” Mad Men
The storyline and characters are certainly gripping, but the fetishised objects advertised by Sterling Cooper, the fictional advertising agency at the centre of Mad Men are also at the heart of the show’s allure. In the ways in which they are advertised and consumed, objects in the show take on their own lives and, aside from the dramas of the characters’ desires, the tragedies of their betrayals and the hints of their satisfaction, tell us their own story about the era that is enjoying a nostalgic comeback: the ‘60s.1
Commoditised products of large corporations, the objects advertised by Sterling Cooper are reduced to punchy slogans and eye-catching images that project the complexities of the characters’ real lives into simple, consumable sentiments. Going beyond the expectations of their inanimate existence, they sometimes reveal more subtlety than the characters.
The weight reduction appliance that Peggy Olson is given to try in her first foray into copyrighting, in Season 1, turns out to be a cover up for something else.2 In the form of an oversized pair of pants with wires attaching them to a machine, the contraption, as she finds out one evening in the comfort of her bedroom, is actually a vibrator.
She tries to disclose the true nature of it to her (male) colleagues, but they decide it would not be socially acceptable to advertise it for what it is and, instead, stick to its original name: the Relaxicisor. They only gesture very cursorily at its true function by using adjectives like “stimulating”.
The disjuncture between the function of the object and its labelling reveals the object to be more than it appears. It embodies the sensitivities about female sexuality during the era, wrapping the taboo of female masturbation with a veil of innocence comfortable for a ‘60s consumer.
While the characters try to compartmentalise the vibrator within socially comfortable boundaries, the narrative surrounding the object reveals more to us about society in the ‘60s than the characters let on. The hypocrisy inherent in the masking of the vibrator as a weight loss contraption is evident in the way in which women are constantly, and pretty crudely, sexually objectified by male characters throughout the programme.
In the very same episode in which the vibrator is covered up, Don Draper is having an extra-marital affair with Rachel and Roger Sterling is far from sexually subtle in referring to Joan as the ‘finest piece of ass’ he has had. Female sexuality is at the forefront of the minds of the male protagonists and the possibility of sexuality without the existence of the man is rendered as discrete as possible (by men) through the pretence of the vibrator.
The true nature of the female masturbator does, however, come into its own. It comes to signify the possibility for women to be free from male objectification when, in the same episode, Betty, Don’s wife, finds herself aroused while sitting on her jolting washing machine. We wonder whether she will ever be liberated her from her alienated existence as a housewife; and whether she will see that her sexuality, and in turn her happiness, could be satisfied by means other than an unfaithful husband.
Another piece of technology that has an unexpected effect is a lawnmower brought into the offices of Sterling Cooper in Season 3.3 The brand new grass green mower sparks the interest of the staff shortly after its manufacturer, John Deere, is signed up as a new client. John Deere had been manufacturing professional mowers and tractors since the 1800s, but it was not until 1963 that the company entered the consumer market and mowers like this could be marketed for use in people’s back gardens.4
Given the technology would have been new to people like the characters at Sterling Cooper’s New York offices, it is unsurprising that they gawk over it and, in the case of one drunken secretary at least, want to take it for a ride. The lawn mower is an aspirational object that represents the huge advances in consumer technology in the ‘60s. Contraptions like this connoted the promise that everyone could be modern.
While consumer technology was on the rise, however, the undesired consequences of Lois’ joy ride are an example of the fact that health and safety rules at work had not quite caught up. In one of the most memorable scenes of the show, Lois loses control of the mower while driving it around the office and ends up running over the foot of a colleague who has come visit from England. The mishap ends up costing the visitor not only his foot, but also his job, exposing the devastating consequences of an accident at work and of disparaging attitudes towards disability in the workplace.
Despite the tragedy of the episode, there is an undertone of dark humour in the fact that the victim is a haughty Brit whose firm has recently acquired Sterling Cooper and wants to appoint him as its new boss. As a result, as well as an object of consumer aspiration and a piece of technology, the lawn mower takes on a triple role when it becomes an instrument of retribution.
Another consumer good that is central to the business of Sterling Cooper and speaks of broader cultural and social issues of the time is the cigarette. The firm’s biggest client is Lucky Strike, a brand of American cigarettes then owned by British American Tobacco. In an ironic contrast to today, an age when cigarette advertising is banned and carries a huge stigma, cigarettes are constantly glamorised in the lives of the characters and in the advertising campaigns they conjure up. While the show overall taps into our nostalgia for a bygone era, smoking represents one facet of everyday life that the modern viewer is made to balk at.
In Mad Men, smoking at every possible circumstance – not only in the office but also in an aeroplane, around young children and while pregnant – is portrayed as the norm, highlighting the significant shift in the social acceptability of smoking between the ’60s and today. Such behaviour has provoked a viewer backlash of bloggers who, for instance, hail Betty Draper the “worst TV mom ever” for smoking (and drinking) around her children.5 When Don Draper comes up with the slogan ‘It’s toasted’ – a tag line actually used by Lucky Strike in real life – it is hailed in the programme as an ingenious way of counteracting the rumours that were beginning to diffuse regarding the poisonousness of tobacco.6
Then, when Lucky Strike later leave the agency, Don publishes a newspaper article saying that it was for the best as far as his firm were concerned, since cigarettes are harmful anyway. When he does so, he is met with the disgust of his colleagues, who believe he has defeated their chances of ever acquiring another cigarette client, effectively committing business suicide. The irony is that we, the viewer, know that the future of cigarette advertising is short lived.
The objects advertised by Sterling Cooper are not the only ones that reveal something about the life and times ofMad Men. The entire mise-en-scène of the show has been carefully chosen and contrived to reflect its ‘60s context. Like the characters themselves, the objects have become inseparable from viewers’ identification with the show.
On Twitter, there are a number of accounts for Mad Men and its characters, but also for the objects that epitomise the technological advances of the period and which appear in the programme. For instance, the Xerox 914, the vending machine and the Dictaphone all have their very own Twitter accounts.7
One can only wonder, as Mad Men airs its sixth series in April 2013, which objects will be chosen as the protagonists of the end of the ‘60s.