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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Mad Men–Why We Hated Advertising In The 70s But Love It Now

Everyone loves Mad Men; even or especially those who did not live through the Sixties.  There is a minimalist cool to the era, at least as presented by the show, a simplicity of fixed sexual roles and few social or environmental concerns to mar the sophistication and savoir-faire of Madison Avenue and what it represented.  Ads and advertising were an integral part of middle-American life.  Jingles jingles were the songs of childhood, and commercial images of bounty and limitless opportunity were the stuff of peacetime American dreams and the icons of a self-assured country going places.

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Something happened in the 70s, recounts Ashley Fetters in The Atlantic (4.7.13), and advertisers went from pop heroes to vilified corrupters of the nation.

Public surveys conducted periodically by Gallup and other agencies from the 1930s through the 1980s showed that distrust and disapproval toward commercial advertising spiked in the years between 1970 and 1979, according to a 1994 Journal of Public Policy & Marketing article by John E. Calfee and Debra Jones Ringold. Studies by Harris and Associates, Inc., meanwhile, found in 1976 that "a majority of respondents felt ... that most or all of television advertising was seriously misleading," even though feedback had been evenly mixed just a decade before.

Fetters does not probe the essential question of why, but goes on to chronicle the various government initiatives taken during the period to rein in an agency not only selling dreams but also bad if not false information. Federal agencies had been indifferent to or at least complicit in advertising malfeasance; but this attitude, emerging out of growing public mistrust, changed radically.

But in 1969, Ralph Nader published his controversial Nader Report on the Federal Trade Commission, a project in which Nader and seven law-student volunteers exposed the general laziness of the FTC in protecting consumers from false advertisements and fraud. Their report condemned suggestive ads, deceptive or false claims in TV commercials and print ads, and the diversion of attention away from unappealing information (such as the unpleasant side effects of a drug, or the health risks of cigarettes).

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) underwent a major overhaul and went after advertising with a vengeance.  It not only addressed the issue of false claims and willful deceit (tobacco), but that of advertising to immature, unformed, children who were unable to discriminate between program content and advertising.

So, what happened? And why did the country so quickly turn Ad Men into villains.

Perhaps it was Watergate-era pessimism seeping in, or maybe just the post-1960s hangover causing all the grumbling. There may be no single reason for the sudden downturn in attitudes toward advertising

Watergate pessimism is only one reason for the disillusionment. The period of the late 60s to mid-70s was one of general dissatisfaction with the American economic and political system.  It was a time of revolt against established corporate, capitalist interests; hatred of government for Vietnam and Cambodia; and a hostility to the bourgeois middle class which had been responsible for the repression of minorities, gays, and women. 

In other words, it was a time of radical reassessment of American values.  It is no wonder that equal hostility was turned towards advertising, for what institution is more quintessentially American than Madison Avenue.  Advertising sold products that people did not need and used all tricks in the book to increase market share.  They were as far from the new, youthful ideal of sustainability, simplicity and living within one’s means as possible.  They were the devil’s handmaidens in the business of predatory capitalism.

The opposite question must also be asked – why did Americans so quickly return to their unequivocal embrace of advertising and all it stood for.  Again, this is not hard to understand.  The 80s are known for their excesses, big money, exorbitant Wall Street salaries, and an ethos of ‘greed is good’.  Cocaine fueled the euphoria, and young Americans, almost a generation removed from the Woodstock Generation, returned to their roots and to their tried and true consumerism, the bread and butter of millions, the engine that has always kept the American economy humming.

The euphoria died down in the 90s, the cocaine frenzy slowed, but Americans settled once again into their own, familiar conservative routines. No longer was elegance and fashion spat upon as bourgeois and anti-democratic.  No longer was the military reviled, and a social equilibrium – the old status quo returned.  Strident calls for a feminist revolution were tempered and women’s magazines were once again girly, and the how-to-get-a-man features, underground for a decade, re-emerged in full bore.  Sexy was back, hairy armpits and shit-kickers out.  Formal attire again de rigeur and no longer satired as old guard as a remnant of fusty aristocratic imperialism.

Advertising was once again ‘in’.  Glossy fashion ads were looked at with envy and desire rather than scorn.  Gadgets to make life easier once again came to the fore.  Just as the refrigerator, the freezer, and the vacuum cleaner were sold both as useful products and symbols of the new Freedom for the American Housewife, so it was with the microwave, Walkman, and a thousand other gadgets and widgets.

By the 2000s, we were back to the Fifties – a return to conservatism, unbridled consumerism, and unabashed celebration of things and the good life.  Watching the Super Bowl for the ads was a metaphor for embracing American popular culture.  Advertising expressed what we are and what we want.

Now, ads for pharmaceutical products, thanks to FTC intervention, all contain disclaimers.  If you paid attention to them and their dire warnings about death, disease, and disfigurement, you would never even be tempted to try the product offered; but of course you don’t pay attention to the fine print, look over and beyond it to the happy, pain-free, eternal life promised by Novartis, Bayer, or Squibb. We are as hooked on advertising as we ever were.  If marketers thought that their long, painful litany of side-effects would discourage sales, they wouldn’t waste their money; but they know the American consumer like no other and know that he will succumb to happy images and the promise of a better life just as easily as the 19th century rube fell for snake-oil.

The brief, ascetic period of the 70s was an aberration from the norm of American consumerism, but only a short one. 

Not only are we all back into the fold of Madison Avenue hucksterism, but we are all for the power and sophistication of marketing.  Masochistically we love the fact that advertisers are so good at what they do.

Not only that, but business has always stayed at least one step ahead of the Federal Government.  OK, say advertisers, we’ll provide the somber voice-over about death and misery, but we’ll do it in such a way that it will be ignored.  Yes, we will stop our most direct and manipulative appeals to children, but we will work on the aspirations of parents, their busy schedules, and the imprecations of dissatisfied offspring to be sure that sugared cereals and snacks fly off the shelves.  The bureaucratic, ironbound, ponderous machinery of government will never be a match for the more agile, motivated, intelligent, and canny juggernaut of the private sector.

And thus [says Fetters] we can conclude that:  Up to this point, things have gone pretty swimmingly for Don Draper and company; they enjoy almost unchecked privilege in their creative pursuit of consumers' cash. But if the show's timeline keeps marching on in the direction those double-breasted jackets and polyester pants hint it might, a few friendly neighborhood FTC officers could soon become cast regulars.

I doubt it very much.  All that Mad Men needs to dampen ratings and encourage channel flipping, is some dowdy bureaucrats in trench coats and high-water pants.  This will never happen; nor will canny, manipulative, creative, and eminently successful advertising go away any time soon.

1 comment:

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