The Fetishism of Commodities: Meditations on Mad Men and Capitalism and Its Discontents

Pull Quote: “People forget that Karl Marx was the greatest economist who ever lived” – Mad Men’s creative copywriter Paul Kinsey.

 NOTE: This article contains plot spoilers.

When AMC’s Mad Men marathon began on Wednesday, May 13 at 3:00 p.m. PST, I watched 12 hours straight to 3:00 a.m., Thursday morning, and intermittently viewed the ensuing 92 episodes, culminating with the last hurrah at Big Sur entitled Person to Person.  Watching the series unspool was like reading chapters of a great novel, by Tolstoy or Balzac.  Leading up to the grand finale by chronologically airing each installment of the groundbreaking program that premiered July 19, 2007, was a stroke of genius.  I never binge watched a production like this before and wonder if any other TV program stretching over eight years has been unfolded, consecutively, nonstop, by a broadcast or cable channel.

What made Mad Men arguably the greatest dramatic series in American TV history is that there was a method to its madness.  Using compelling characters and storylines, vivid period set designs and costuming, plus evocative music, creator/writer/director Matthew Weiner explored the changing dynamics of capitalism during one of America’s most turbulent decades.  Opening in 1960 against the backdrop of the Kennedy-Nixon presidential race, Sterling Cooper is an independent advertising firm located at Manhattan.  Robert Morse portrays co-founder Bert Cooper, an acolyte of Ayn Rand, the apostle of laissez faire economics and the “virtues of selfishness.”

The admen like senior partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery), a likable rogue, are quintessential capitalists who grease the wheels of mass consumption.  Unlike industrialists, they don’t create anything tangible – instead, these Madison Avenue hucksters use artistry, psychology and personal persuasion to sell others’ products and their own services to clients to do so.  Early on, Sterling Cooper’s much-vaunted creative director, series protagonist Don Draper (John Hamm), proclaims that advertising is about “happiness.”  Through various mass mediums admen market manufacturer’s items by positioning them as means to an end, that is, ensuring satisfaction through purchases.  For instance, in contrast to beautiful women, Jaguars are sold as beauty men can literally own.  In this way advertisers fetishize commodities, often literally linking them to the promise of sexual fulfillment.  Their exchange value dwarfs any usefulness the products promise – indeed, much of what’s sold, such as Lucky Strike cigarettes, is not only useless, but harmful.  (In the denouement Don’s first wife, Betty, played by January Jones, is dying of lung cancer while Don embarks on a cross-continental odyssey seeking a woman with the portentous name “Di.”)

However, during the show’s seven-season, eight year arc, despite their desperate maneuvers, Sterling Cooper is acquired first by a British firm, then by real life advertising conglomerate McCann Erickson.  The freewheeling admen attempt at times to break free and reassert their independence, but are unable to compete with and halt the growth of insatiable corporate behemoths.  Over the years a McCann Erickson executive aggressively courts Sterling Cooper’s wunderkind Draper with an Ahabian obsession – he even refers to Draper as his “white whale,” whom he finally harpoons.

Sterling Cooper’s trajectory mirrors the mergers and acquisitions of modern big business, as the big fish swallow the little fish.  The world of entrepreneurial individual initiative is displaced by corporatization and consolidation, free enterprise replaced by monopolization.

Mad Men expresses self-awareness of this political economy – at one point, creative copywriter Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis), tells patrician Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), an ambitious account exec: “People forget that Karl Marx was the greatest economist who ever lived, and whatever you think of his solution, the problem he posed was about the catastrophic up-and-down of the marketplace.”  The bearded, pipe-smoking Kinsey, who was a Freedom Rider in the South, had a Black lover and ends up a Krishna devotee, is not the only character referencing Marx.  Emile Calvet (Ronald Guttman),  French-Canadian father of Draper’s second wife, Megan (Jessica Paré), is a Marxist intellectual.

The series’ plots and characters wind their way through the sturm und drang of the sizzling sixties and early seventies, with the Vietnam War and race relations serving as leitmotifs.  Set in New York, Mayor John Lindsay and Governor Nelson “Rocky” Rockefeller are referred to – especially as Betty Draper’s second husband, Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley), works for these liberal Republican pols.

Initially, Sterling Cooper is lily white, but over time it’s integrated – that is, to the extent that there are some Black secretaries.  After Martin Luther King’s assassination riots erupt; at the office whites try clumsily – but sincerely – to comfort African American colleagues.  For example, Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) warmly hugs a Black co-worker.  In the most moving scene, Pete the blueblood blows his top at media buyer Harry Crane, whose main concern is that televised coverage of Dr. King’s murder is preempting commercials.

But within its overall critique of capitalism Mad Men’s most persistent single recurring theme is that of sexual politics.  In those days before workplace discrimination and harassment laws, women were treated abominably in the office.  The two main female characters embodying this include Peggy Olson, who is sort of Jimmy Olsen, cub reporter, to Don’s Clark Kent.  She starts off as a secretary but due to her talent and determination, rises to become Sterling Cooper’s first female copywriter.  They have a rocky relationship, but while Don can be cutting to Peggy he recognizes her ability and pushes her to excel, even if he rarely verbalizes his appreciation of and respect for her.  Although the married Don is a serial womanizer, in Mad Men’s first episode, he rebuffs Peggy when she places her hand on his, stressing that theirs is a working relationship, not a romance.  Over the course of the series they help each other, developing an artist-to-artist rapport, becoming confidants, if not soul mates.

On the other hand, in early episodes as the insecure Pete Campbell is about to get married, he pursues Peggy, impregnating her.  Coming from a strict Catholic background in provincial Brooklyn, at first Peggy doesn’t tell Pete and gives her child up for adoption.  Just as Peggy struggles on the job, her private life is unhappy.  In a lovely moment during the series’ Person to Person sign off, bearded, longhaired art director Stan Rizzo (who’d worked for LBJ’s 1964 campaign) and Peggy admit their love to one another.  An important point to note is that this occurs right after Don has made a person-to-person (hence the episode’s title – although 1950s TV icon Edward R. Murrow’s interview program bore the same name) phone call to Peggy from California, where he confesses his sins and flaws to her.  Somehow, in doing so, this enables Peggy to be released, liberated and she opens up to Stan’s profession of love.

Curvaceous redhead Joan Holloway Harris (Christina Hendricks) is Sterling Cooper’s formidable office manager, who must also wend her way through the trench warfare of sixties sexism.  Like Peggy, even very late in season 7, she’s still belittled because she’s a woman (and also has a child out of wedlock).  The scheming Joan also has an at times contentious relationship with Peggy and becomes a partner in the firm as payment for  sleeping with a Jaguar exec to secure the sports car account.  Her partnership enriches Joan, who is wooed in the final season by retired millionaire Richard Burghoff (Bruce Greenwood who, along with January Jones, co-stars in their first post-Mad Men roles in the anti-drone warfare movie Good Kill).  But zaftig Joan emerges as the show’s top feminist when she declines to marry Richard in order to form and run her own business – within the confines of capitalist, patriarchal society, Joan is her own boss and in control.  On the other hand, Betty, the housewife who gave up her modeling career for Don (twice), dies early, despite her blonde beauty.

What made Matthew Weiner’s program so outstanding is that he dramatized his commentary on capitalism with gripping plots peopled by eminently watchable flesh and blood characters.  Don Draper, of course, takes pride of place.  As his assumed name indicates, “Don” is hiding behind the drapes, having taken the name of another soldier killed while they are in Korea.  (As the Wizard of Oz said: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”)  Like Jay Gatsby, Dick Whitman seeks to remake himself and takes on a new identity.  Watching the early episodes during the AMC marathon it became clearer what Don/Dick was running away from: His miserable childhood growing up at a farm during the Depression, a prostitute mother who died, an alcoholic father.  This shattered Don/Dick who sought to escape his dreary background by moving to Manhattan and “making it.”  The handsome ad man’s compulsive womanizing, despite his marriages, may be subconscious efforts to find his mother and perhaps the elusive waitress Di – whom Don/Dick keeps asking if they’ve met before – resembled his mother, his doomed Princess Di.

In any case, after Don/Dick and his partners completely lose their independence, swallowed up as a wholly owned subsidiary of the McCann Erickson mega-corporation, he simply walks out of a business meeting and goes Kerouac.  On the road, he embarks on a cross-country odyssey, winding up at Big Sur, in an Esalen Institute-inspired countercultural haven.  There, he participates in group therapy and encounter group sessions.  When another participant breaks down and cries, Don embraces and comforts him as he opens to empathy.  Then, on a cliff at Big Sur, the azure ocean in the background, amidst hippie-looking men and women, the newly compassionate Don/Dick appears to be meditating and chanting “Om.”  As a Buddhist bell sounds, cut to the famous 1971 Coca Cola commercial and jingle with multi-culti youths singing: “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony” atop a green Italian hilltop.

What is Matthew Weiner, who wrote and directed Person to Person, getting at?  What does it mean?  At a May 20 private screening of Mad Men co-star Harry Hamlin’s new feature The Fourth Noble Truth (which opens June 5 and, coincidentally, is entirely about meditation), I asked what his interpretation of the ending is.  “Don is definitely meditating…[But] to answer that you’d have to get into the weird mind of Matt Weiner,” quipped Hamlin, who played Jim Cutler of Cutler Gleason and Chaough, a rival advertising firm that had merged with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

In any case, is Don/Dick, like Larry Darrell (depicted by Tyrone Power in 1946 and Bull Murray in 1984 screen versions) in Somerset Maugham’s classic 1944 novel The Razor’s Edge, forsaking materialism and on a quest to attain inner peace and enlightenment?  Has he turned his back on advertising, which crassly exploits the counterculture by fetishizing Coca Cola as “The Real Thing”?  After all, this isn’t his first brush with alternative lifestyles – in the very first Mad Men Don/Dick’s initial extramarital fling was with an artsy woman who exposed him to Beatnik subculture in Greenwich Village.

Or does Don/Dick’s exposure to spiritual values lead to his becoming an avatar of admen who brings this notion of transcendental oneness back to McCann Erickson (which, in reality, did actually create the Coke ad, although under different circumstances) for the dream merchants to mercilessly manipulate, misuse and cash in on?  Is this Dick Whitman’s evocation of Walt Whitman’s “universal soul”?  Is Don/Dick perpetrating the ultimate fetishism of commodities by conjuring up a syrupy concoction of chemicals as the cure for humanity’s ailments so people are “All standing hand in hand, And hear them echo through the hills, For peace throughout the land”?

This wouldn’t be the first time mass advertising cynically exploited progressive ideals on the program.  In Season 2’s 2008 episode The Gold Violin, young copywriter Smitty Smith (Patrick Cavanaugh) reads 1962’s Port Huron Statement, the New Left’s founding document.  Smitty isn’t endorsing the Students for a Democratic Society’s utopianism, but figuring out how to sell to the younger generation, as SDS’ ideals are misappropriated for a coffee advertising campaign using calypso music.

Revealing time and again that under capitalism, nothing – love, sex, participatory democracy, world peace, et al – is sacred and can’t be commodified, the enlightening Mad Men had a fine madness.

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