15 Years Ago, Mad Men Quietly Began Its Engagement With Leftist Ideas

This month marks the 15th anniversary of the launch of Mad Men. The show isn’t just compelling narratively and aesthetically — it also features a little remarked upon consideration of left ideas.


Jon Hamm as ad exec Don Draper in Mad Men. (AMC)

The prestige drama Mad Men, which ran for seven seasons, beginning fifteen years ago this month, received plenty of awards and close readings from mainstream critics. The Left press largely slept on it, which is a shame: the series was not only very funny and poignant and offered viewers a lot to chew on about the changing politics and gender roles of the 1960s, but seemed to draw direct inspiration from socialist thought. Series creator Matthew Weiner tipped his hand that Mad Men would at least play with Marxist critiques of capitalism in the very first episode with two simple words: “It’s toasted.”

That advertising slogan is prominently featured in a classic mid-century Marxist text, Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order by Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy. In an age when supermarket shelves were newly and fully stocked with competing technicolor boxes of breakfast cereal and the constant introduction of “new” and “improved” products, the two writers, associated with the Marxist magazine and book publisher Monthly Review, argued that “competition, which was the predominant form of market relations,” had been replaced by “large-scale enterprise producing a significant share of the output of an industry, or even several industries, and able to control its prices, the volume of production, and the types and amounts of its investments.”

Monopoly, in other words, wasn’t an occasional mistake of the capitalist system — now it was the system.

One of Baran and Sweezy’s central arguments is that the massive surplus value (or, more crudely, the profits) generated by monopoly capital could be democratically and equitably distributed to provide for the material needs of all members of society. Instead, it’s wasted.

One particularly egregious form of waste they target is the commercial advertising business, which was rapidly expanding in the 1960s. Instead of reinvesting surplus in innovation or using the lowered costs of production to make more products available to more people, advertising wastes vast fortunes on convincing consumers that one identical product is somehow superior to another.

In the process of advancing this argument, Baran and Sweezy cite a bit of Madison Avenue braggadocio from ad exec and author Rosser Reeves: the George Washington Hill tobacco company’s “It’s toasted” advertising campaign — “So, indeed, is every other cigarette, but no manufacturer has been shrewd enough to see the enormous possibility of such a simple story.”

The plot of Mad Men’s first episode centers on an impending Surgeon General report that will link smoking tobacco to lung cancer. This is a crisis for the series’ protagonist, Don Draper.

Not a health crisis, of course. In fact, Draper, the head of the creative department at the fictional Sterling Cooper advertising agency, is first introduced smoking a cigarette and sketching out tobacco ad campaigns on the back of a cocktail napkin in preparation for a high-stakes meeting with his largest client, a tobacco company. Cigarette advertising had long emphasized the supposed therapeutic benefits of smoking, and the client wants a plan for how to continue selling a product when the public inevitably finds out it’s deadly.

“This is the greatest advertising opportunity since the invention of cereal. We have six identical companies making six identical products,” Draper declares after some initial floundering.

To prove his point, Draper asks the men to describe how their cigarettes are made. His client, the patriarch of Lucky Strike, blathers on about insect-repellent seeds, the North Carolina sunshine, and the harvesting, curing, and toasting of the tobacco leaves.

“There you go!” Draper declares about the fact that tobacco leaves are toasted before they’re rolled into cancer sticks. When the owner’s son objects that all cigarette tobacco is toasted as part of the manufacturing process, the advertising agency’s head of creative counters, “No. Everybody else’s tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strike’s is toasted.”

This was not a famous advertising campaign. It’s hardly “Where’s the Beef?” and was for a completely different cigarette maker. It seems clear that Matthew Weiner read Monopoly Capital and drew some inspiration from it. But what, if anything, was he trying to say about the advanced stage of capitalism and artistic creativity in an industry built on lies and deception?


A Beautiful Sentiment

Early reviewers noticed that Mad Men was slyly feminist, with secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olson’s slow climb toward professional respect and artistic ambition marking her as the show’s parallel (if not primary) protagonist. From early on, interviewers drew out Weiner on the influence that Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique and Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl had on his pilot script.

Those were bestselling books. But Cold War–era Marxist economic texts are deeper cuts, so Monthly Review’s contribution to Mad Men has gone unremarked upon.

Baran and Sweezy are not the last or even the most obvious example of Mad Men cribbing from leftist texts. A third-season episode has a pair of copywriters, recently hired to help court the emerging baby boomer market, making a “kids these days” presentation about developing a youth market for a client, a coffee brand, to Draper.

Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson in Mad Men. (AMC)

The smarmier of the two, Smitty, launches into an already passé staccato faux-beatnik rap about “this letter from a friend back in Michigan . . . he’s still in school, man, and it’s got this — I dunno — sixty-page rant in it.” He reads from it: “We would replace power rooted in possession, privilege, or circumstance by power and uniqueness rooted in love, reflectiveness, reason, and creativity.”

Though unnamed in the episode, that “rant” is the Port Huron Statement, the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society and a seminal text of the New Left.

“That’s a beautiful sentiment,” Draper replies sardonically. “Does your friend know what you do for a living?”

Smitty replies with a slightly deflated, “Yeah . . . there was a shitty note with it.”

How quickly and eagerly young men would seek to commodify youth rebellion to sell instant coffee is treated as a bitter joke. There is some creativity required to repackage anti-capitalist sentiment as a new and improved lifestyle that can be purchased at the supermarket. But that creative spark is wasted on cynical exploitation.

A major theme across Mad Men’s seven seasons is the tension between the creative talent at an advertising firm and the accounts executives who keep the corporate clients happy (and the revenue flowing). At one point in the series, Draper bellyaches that the creative department is the “most important, least important thing there is.” The most important element in advertising, of course, is actually the buying and selling of radio and television airtime and column inches in newspapers and magazines (in its 1960’s business model, at least). That’s where the money is made. But the creatives are essential for selling the lie that one cigarette is superior to another (and that they will all kill you should not be a primary concern).

In its first three seasons, the idea of advertising as “selling out” creative ambition is most fully represented in the character Paul Kinsey, a senior copywriter who fashions himself as a bohemian and wears his admiration for Rod Serling and Orson Welles on his sleeve (and his bearded face). He lets anyone who will listen know that he’s always writing something that could turn into the Great American Novel, or at least an episode of The Twilight Zone. We also see him try to blow up a pitch meeting with the Pennsylvania Railroad Company to protest the demolition of its classic train station in 1963, as well as participate in — and chicken out during — the Mississippi Freedom Rides that summer.

We’re also given the clear impression that he’s not all that creative of a writer. He’s hilariously left behind when Draper and his partners start a new firm after ransacking their old office in the middle of the night. The audience sees Kinsey one more time, years later, when the character is in a Krishna cult and shopping around a Star Trek spec script.


Advertising as Art

Draper, in the early seasons, is similarly drawn toward the bohemian Greenwich Village, and stays on top of the latest novels and movies. One imagines he could create greater art than hokey tag lines for Life cereal. Peggy similarly winds up in the orbit of artists who can at least score an invite to Andy Warhol’s Factory.

Even the accounts men have a creative drive. Senior partner Roger Sterling spends the fourth-season year of 1965 writing his (poorly received) memoir, Sterling’s Gold, and an early episode in season one has the announcement that junior accounts executive Ken Cosgrove published a short story in the Atlantic, stirring jealousy among the other young men in the office.

With Cosgrove out of earshot, Kinsey and Peter Campbell and Harry Crane confess their artistic pretensions and cook up plans to get their own abandoned (and seemingly sophomoric) stories published; Campbell going so far as pressuring his wife, Trudy, to reconnect with an ex-boyfriend in the publishing business. Cosgrove, we find out, continues to pseudonymously publish genre short stories even as his accounts responsibilities increase — causing “fellow frustrated writer” Sterling (perhaps in a fit of jealousy) to forbid him from continuing to do so as a senior executive.

Whatever Matthew Weiner had to say about the employment of creative talent in a wasteful and unnecessary industry, it seems he intended to give the audience two potential interpretations in the series’ ambiguous final scene. Having walked out of the stultifying environment of the enormous McCann Erickson advertising agency after it absorbed and dissolved the small firm that Draper dedicated years of his life to building up, Draper dries out and meditates at a California hilltop yoga camp with an ambiguous smile on his face. Before the scene cuts to black, it fades in a soundtrack and visuals from a vastly more famous advertisement than “It’s toasted.”

The real-world McCann Erickson managed to turn a jingle for Coca-Cola, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” into a chart-topping single in 1971 on the strength of a stunningly cynical ad that featured vaguely multicultural hippies embracing on a hilltop. Sure, the ad sought to reassure its audience, you just saw cops beat the shit out of those idealistic Students for a Democratic Society kids in Chicago and now a bunch of them are blowing up federal buildings to protest the whole system, and your new president was elected through a strategy of racist “law and order” dog-whistling. But at least Coke brings us all together.

If you rewind and slow-mo the moments before Draper’s Mona Lisa smile, you’ll notice hairstyles and outfits from the Coke ad surround him as workers and guests at his newfound hilltop hippie camp. Is he smiling because this scene that he’s stumbled upon has inspired him to innovate a new decade of exploiting baby boomer culture to sell a national culture back to them in the form of diabetes in a bottle? Or is the dark joke of Mad Men that, even when an advertising creative walks away from a lucrative career of emotional manipulation and lies, the machine keeps on humming without him?

The problem is that as much as Matthew Weiner leaned on the famous cut-to-black ending of The Sopranos (his artistic home when he was writing Mad Men’s pilot) as a sort of “choose your own mythology,” his recent interviews have placed a heavy thumb on the scale in favor of the interpretation where Draper returns to New York to pitch the hippie Coke ad. Why does the internet tempt creators to ruin their endings by commenting on them? Weiner had ample opportunity to put a more definitive version on the screen and didn’t. What now privileges his head canon over my own, where Draper remains retired and returns to New York to be a present father for his kids and a reliable friend to the handful of female colleagues he managed to avoid sleeping with?

The ending in Weiner’s head is one of the most disappointingly cynical statements that a TV show that began with a nod to how advertising contributes nothing of productive value to society could have landed upon. It suggests a triumph of capitalism so complete that not only is making emotionally manipulative advertising an art that artists should settle for because the system makes room for it, but that it is the kind of creatively fulfilling work that an artist should aspire to. I’d rather stay at yoga camp.