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Don Draper Sees The Future. Do We?

The third season finale of AMC's highly successful series, Mad Men, aired on Sunday night. We're big fans.

Warning: plot spoilers ahead!

The final episode takes place shortly after JFK's assassination. Shortly after the killing, Don Draper, Mad Men's deeply flawed protagonist, learns that Sterling Cooper, the ad agency at the show's center, has been bought by burgeoning giant McCann Erickson. Don convinces Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper, the firm's owners (who have already sold their firm once this season to a British conglomerate) that they need to strike out on their own. They set out to convince their top talent to join them.

Don knows that one key to their success will be the company's sole female executive, Peggy Olson. Peggy has risen from bright secretary to top creative by virtue of her incisiveness, evident in her ideas for Tab, Aqua Net and Western Union campaigns. Don, her boss, treats her ambivalently, (like he treats all women), alternating between brusque, almost abusive, possessive dismissiveness, and repentance.

All of that is background for this scene.

In it, Don visits Peggy's apartment in a (repentant) attempt to convince her to join the new firm, after (brusquely) practically demanding that she do so earlier. Peggy'd refused. 

After a few niceties, (Peggy - "Do you want anything?" Don - "Yes, I do."), he gets down to an apology, and to the business at hand. 

Here's that key snippet of dialogue again:

Don - Do you know why I don't want to go to McCann?

Peggy - Because you can't work for anyone else.

Don - No. Because there are people out there—people who buy things—people like you and me—and something happened; something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is gone. And nobody understands that. But you do. And that's very valuable.

Peggy - Is it?

Something happened that changed the way people saw themselves; the old way they saw themselves is gone.

Now, it's clear that, on one level, the "something terrible" that Draper is referring to is the assassination. The Kennedy assassination and its aftermath marked a tremendous shift in American consciousness.

But, I think there's more. 

Peggy, he says, understands this "something" in a way that nobody else does. Throughout the season, we've seen Peggy propose creative ideas that indicate her awareness of the impending social cataclysm that we now call "the sixties."

Just as 9/11 was the real line of demarcation for "the new millennium," so too was the Kennedy assassination for the 60s. Movies like American Graffiti ("where were you in '62?") and Tin Men (with its ending focusing on McDonald's golden arches looming over Baltimore) and more have pointed out this before-and-after tipping point. 

What Don is referring to when he acknowledges Peggy's value is his own realization that advertising—speaking to "people who buy things"—was about to undergo a titanic shift.

He knows that Peggy is plugged in to these cultural changes and knows how to create ads that will resonate deeply with the new ways that we would be seeing ourselves; ads that would become identity-focused, self-referential, ironic, liberated.

And that got me thinking about our current cultural circumstances. In a fundamental sense, Draper's insight is equally pertinent now:

Because there are people out there—people who buy things—people like you and me—and something happened; something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is gone. And nobody understands that.

In our day, that "something terrible" is agitated exhaustion with push-marketing, information hoarding, lies and corporate-speak, crystallized a decade ago by The Cluetrain Manifesto, now expressing itself in the great wave of written, audio and video material created by people everywhere and in nascent movements like Vendor Relationship Management.

The way people like us—people who buy things—saw ourselves is gone.

The question is, where are the Peggy Olsons and Don Drapers? Where are the advertising and marketing pros who understand that the way we see ourselves has fundamentally changed, and who are ready to speak with us in a manner that recognizes and embraces this new way?

Don't be the product, buy the product!