Mad Men’s Jon Hamm
Icon: noun \’ī-,kän\ : An epitomic symbol or object of uncritical devotion that serves as a representative of a larger category.
When Jon Hamm was cast to play the lead in Mad Men, he had been chasing his Hollywood dreams for over a decade. While it now seems unfathomable that the strikingly handsome Hamm went unnoticed in films like We Were Soldiers, it’s better this way. When Mad Men premiered in 2007 on AMC, the actor had a blank slate on which he could project his character. Audiences were free to think that Hamm had emerged perfectly coiffed in a three-piece suit as Don Draper, the ultimate adman of the 1960s.
Hamm’s wildly evocative portrayal of Draper is the force that fuels the success of the series. Mad Men, which as of press time is in hiatus between the fifth and sixth seasons, is set in one of the most transformative eras in all American history. Season one opens in 1960, the dawn of a period known as the Creative Revolution, a time when New York City’s Madison Avenue was the principle hub for the majority of the world’s top advertising firms. Television was taking over as the primary form of entertainment, as TV sets had infiltrated 90 percent of US households, compared with a paltry 10 percent in 1950. The tried-and-true advertising model of repetition proved to be ineffective in the new medium. In order for ad agencies to win over their targeted audiences, they learned that it was necessary to form a more emotional connection with consumers, one that translated into brand loyalty. This gave rise to the notion of advertising as entertainment, spawning the concept of “branding” and brand campaigns.
The first notable reference to this concept is attributed to David Ogilvy, one of the real titans of Madison Avenue during advertising’s heyday. In his 1963 autobiography, Confessions of an Advertising Man, he writes: “Every advertisement should be thought of as a contribution to the complex symbol which is the brand image.” Mad Men gives audiences a portal to watch the birth of many brands that are still an inextricable part of today’s culture. While the agencies didn’t create the products themselves, they were responsible for the spark that set these brands on a fire that’s been raging for decades.The fictional campaigns created by Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper agency (later Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce) for brands like Playtex, Hilton, and Lucky Strike are but a few of the creative licenses taken by the writers of the series described as “fetishistically accurate” by one New York Times writer. In a memorable scene, during a pitch for Kodak, Draper delivers a masterful monologue about nostalgia as “a twinge in your heart more powerful than memory alone.” Although this particular campaign was invented for the show, the message was designed to tug at consumer heartstrings, a tactic that was being employed by the agencies of the era.
Young & Rubicam, a leading advertising agency often referenced in the show, is known for being especially skilled in this arena, best evidenced by “The Wings of Man” campaign created for Eastern Airlines during the 1960s. The television commercials used Orson Wells as a narrator to deliver messages like “Flight is the way we bring each person to share and understand the world he has in common with someone else.” The branding campaign carried across to print ads, including the one shown on the previous pages. The message elevated an Eastern flight from a mere means of travel to a transcendent cultural connection—and produced lasting results. The airline, which ceased operations in the early 1990s, still evokes strong feelings of loyalty among former customers. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner was said to be disappointed when his obsession with historical accuracy meant that he wasn’t able to have the characters fly on Eastern, an icon from the golden age of air travel, during one early episode.
Not only is Mad Men an iconic show about the golden age of advertising, it’s become a modern icon as well. It has evolved from a quietly buzzed-about show to a cultural phenomenon akin to an iconic brand. In How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding, E.B. Holt, an associate professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, writes: “Icons serve as society’s foundational compass points—anchors of meaning continually referenced in entertainment, journalism, politics, and advertising.”
Mad Men has spawned a revolution that touches all aspects of modern culture. Even if you don’t watch the show, you have felt its effects, as it spills over into fields from fashions to furnishings. Designer Michael Kors found inspiration from the show for his 2008 runway collections, explaining at the time that it “harkens back to people being polished, turned out, and elegant, and women looking feminine and curvy and men looking tailored.” As a result, he debuted a men’s collection with narrower shoulders, a leaner lapel, and a shorter jacket, with heavy-rimmed glasses as a unisex accessory. Similarly, Brooks Brothers, “the iconic American brand,” launched a limited-edition Mad Men suit designed by the show’s award-winning costume designer Janie Bryant, who also had a hand in the creation of Mad Men lines for Banana Republic. And according to the upscale lingerie brand Agent Provocateur, there has been a boost in the sales of garters and stockings since the show premiered. There are Barbie Collector Mad Men Dolls, which, according to a statement, “embody the Mad Men series’ couture fashions and accessories and its iconic 1960s style and aesthetic.”
Holt raises the theory that great branding campaigns “provide their consumers with little epiphanies—moments of recognition that put images, sounds, and feelings on barely perceptible desires.” Draper is, according to a 2009 Ask Men survey, the most influential man in the world—the real world. Much like the branding campaigns, Draper is a creative invention in the Mad Men world as well. The real name of the character played by Hamm is Dick Whitman, a farm boy who claimed Don Draper’s identity after the real Draper died following an explosion in Korea, where Whitman was stationed. When he arrived back in the US, he had a blank slate to create the man he wanted to be—and he aimed high. He didn’t opt to hide from the spotlight in fear of being discovered or outed as a fraud. He chose to be great simply because he was done being anything else. In five years, he rose from a fur salesman to a partner in an ad agency that bears his name.
Perhaps what’s most surprising is that the success of the Mad Men brand is based around an atypical leading man. Especially in seasons one to four, Draper is not a good man. In fact, he may border on what polite, moral individuals would call a “bad” man. The very characteristics we deify in his character are ones vilified by modern society. But with every mistress he takes, every client he wins, every honor he earns, the audience is rooting for him. When he pulls a conquest close or succumbs to the liberated advances of the many women who seek to find the source of his appeal, pulses quicken on the other side of the screen. He is, and please pardon the cliché, the man women want and men want to be. Successful, debonair, and played to perfection by Hamm, Draper is an object of uncritical devotion by the women who long for him, the clients who seek to capitalize on his genius, the colleagues who seek his approval, the partners who seek his commitment, and the wife (both iterations) who seeks his undivided affection. The character provides great insight into our conflicted nature. Perhaps we all want to do bad things—and get away with them. It plays into a larger cultural commentary raised by Holt that iconic brands “function like cultural activists, encouraging people to think differently about themselves.”
The show’s iconic status was solidified in 2011 when it became the first basic cable series ever to win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series for four consecutive years. Heralded for its witty writing and its imagery, its set and costume designs transfix audiences who are wooed by the retro glamour and enthralled by the portal to the past that each episode provides.
As much a historic reenactment as a period drama, Mad Men has an appeal that in large part is its timelessness. Watching the show is not glimpsing through the looking glass to a simpler time but rather a reminder that some struggles are woven into the fabric of human existence. That fabric is just better cut and more tailored than we are used to wearing today.
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