The Wordsmith’s Two-edged Power
Lionsgate Television in association with Weiner Bros. for American Movie Classics (AMC)
By Peter Boumgarden
The television show Mad Men rarely mentions religion in any explicit way. In the first season, “religion” only arises overtly when the executives of the featured advertising firm leverage religious affiliations for the purpose of a sale—substituting a Jewish mailroom worker in as a creative director to win a potential client who is Jewish. And while the second and third seasons feature more prominent roles for members of the Catholic hierarchy, even these episodes rarely address theological questions. The role of these clergy seems to be merely to add to the authentic historicity of the show.
And yet, if people are first and foremost “moral, believing animals” in sociologist Christian Smith’s words,1 we might ask how this impulse manifests itself in those everyday moments when God sits hidden—deus absconditus (Isaiah 45:15). Starting here, a show’s ability to raise theological issues hinges not on explicit references to religious affiliation or on the use of religious language per se, but rather in the subtle ways that characters attempt to orient themselves toward the good.
The scene is Madison Avenue in the early 1960s, and the players are Don Draper and his colleagues, men fighting for position in a cutthroat advertising industry. Nestled inside this space, Mad Men captures a time recent enough to feel familiar, but far enough back to sit strangely foreign. The strain of corporate life on family and relationships is that of our own time. And the advertising accounts on the show—Hilton, Playtex, American Airlines, and Clearasil—still fill our shelves and linger on our credit card statements.
Yet, at certain key points, the show tempts us to critique this bygone era from an elevated position. After all, this was a time before the advent of MTV, the growth of the Internet, and the proliferation of other tools of mass-differentiated media. Today, we think of the creative class as a countercultural force, but in this world, creative ideas emerge from “know-nothings”—a bunch of suits. At the very least, we hope that our world differs from the overt and degrading sexuality and sexism of the Mad Men workplace.
It is within this simultaneously familiar and foreign world that Mad Men effectively raises questions about personal and professional ethics, pursuing an inquiry into what is reasonable when it comes to influence, and exploring whether Plato’s ideal of “the good, true, and beautiful” undergirds words and is lived out in actions. Viewers are encouraged to discover what lies in between the art and copy of Manhattan marketing, and within the personal lives of characters struggling to create meaning and authenticity from the raw material of memories, imagination, and relationships.
As the preeminent “creative” at Sterling Cooper (later Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce), Don Draper is tasked with increasing consumer purchasing by way of art and language. Our first glimpse of Don the professional is a pitch he prepares for Lucky Strike in response to a Reader’s Digest report on the relationship between smoking and cancer. While acknowledging the possibility that this report might contain true claims about the product, the men overlooking Madison Avenue share the goal of molding a story that will lead to greater product appeal. Draper advises Lucky Strike that attention be drawn away from health issues and directed instead toward the aesthetically appealing characteristics of the experience itself. “It’s toasted!” he suggests, reframing the tobacco production process to increase demand.
As a twenty-first-century audience familiar with lawsuits against big tobacco and a ubiquitous “truth” campaign leading the way in antismoking efforts, we cannot help but feel transplanted into a world where spin takes priority over truth. The continual insistence of these men that “I smoke every day, and feel fine” seems further and further down the rabbit hole of self-deception. We might feel warranted in concluding, as journalist and marketer Seth Godin titles his book, that All Marketers Are Liars. Draper experiences this same sentiment in the form of a flashback to his father’s interrogations: “What do you make, Don? What do you do? You grow bullshit!”
Successful marketing hinges on the formation of desires through words, the use of stories to focus an audience on specific parts of the landscape of truth. Part of being theologically attentive to Mad Men is asking how we might distinguish between good and bad storytelling, ethical and unethical persuasion. Why is it that we cringe when it comes to pushing products like cigarettes through the use of words and stories, but are not offended when a great novel or poem changes the way we see love, or a teacher motivates a student toward engagement with the world?
In 1997, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications released the document “Ethics in Advertising,” which included the following distinction: “advertising can be a useful tool for sustaining honest and ethically responsible competition that contributes to economic growth . . . [when] among other ways, [it] inform[s] people about the availability of rationally desirable new products and services and improvements in existing ones, helping them to make informed, prudent consumer decisions.” In other words, when it sustains and builds upon our rationality, it is appropriate.
This underlying view of homo rationalis as the ideal person contrasts with the increasingly accepted view of the human as an “emotional dog” who wags a “rational tail” to justify these impulses.2 This alternative portrait of humankind, which emerges from the social intuitionist schools of psychology,3 describes these nonrational factors as a complex set of mechanisms—such as attention to purity, organization around care, in-group loyalty, and fairness—that are more morally ambiguous than sinful. In this psychological framework, humans are not rational computers, nor should our normative frameworks kneel down at this altar.
We understand this, don’t we? How many of us want to look at our actions of fidelity and our desires for commitment—both of which extend beyond “rational product benefits”—as irrational or manipulative? Theological positions themselves evolve into canon through complex historical-political processes, which include the framing, delivering, and transmission of orthodoxy through persuasion and imposition. Isn’t this also a form of “advertising”? Should the Christological arguments of Trinitarianism, for example, be considered invalid because they were more emotionally or intuitively persuasive to a specific set of individuals than those of Docetism or Arianism? Not necessarily, if rationality is removed from its normative throne. When we move away from the assumption that emotions or impulses are always base and sinful, the rational product-attribute argument from Rome seems to fall short. Mad Men compels us to consider what it means to be attentive to the role of language and truth as our stories jump from lips to ears, as they stir hearts and change behavior.
The Draper who convincingly tells stories about products is the same Draper who lives, loves, and lusts alongside his fellow men and women.
Yet, most of us differ from Don Draper, in that he holds a powerful position in the world as the highly nurtured wordsmith. Don’s control of language gives him a seemingly divine ability to see reality as latent with color and contrast, and to produce the words to make it full of meaning. But like any craft, such abilities extend beyond the boardroom. The Draper who convincingly tells stories about products is the same Draper who lives, loves, and lusts alongside his fellow men and women.
And here Don’s personal world is one of deep contradictions. His love life is often weighed down by infidelity built on his desire for possession and control, creating tawdry scenes that are at odds with the seemingly picturesque family life awaiting him at home. Draper’s disjointedness is revealed to the audience when we find that he has quite literally stolen a fallen soldier’s identity after serving with him in the Korean War. To prevent others from discovering this complex fracture in his personal life, Don learns to be a master of identity formation. He avoids people from his past, creates roles and expectations in others, and artfully monitors any bleeding between disjointed perspectives. Authors Robert Greene and Joost Elffers could have had Draper in mind in the preface to their 1998 book, The 48 Laws of Power:
Power requires the ability to play with appearances. To this end you must learn to wear many masks and keep a bag full of deceptive tricks. Deception and masquerade should not be seen as ugly or immoral. All human interaction requires deception on many levels, and in some ways what separates humans from animals is our ability to lie and deceive.
Here, human uniqueness is depicted as homo decipere; man made in the image of the adman. Greene and Elffers continue:
With such a flexible approach to all appearances, including your own, you lose a lot of the inward heaviness that holds people down. Make your face as malleable as the actor’s.4
While Don certainly plays with appearances, to say his psyche lacks an “inward heaviness” seems false. Rather, he is often cast into situations where the shadows of his former life step back into focus: a brother he has intentionally estranged himself from finds Don through a picture in the local news; affairs with women earn him a reputation future suitors are aware of; and his daughter’s adoration for the military accomplishments he does not deserve eventually nags at his psyche. This power of language to shape identity—by shaping where we focus our memories and how we tell our stories—can be problematic, as our creative efforts may fail to align with the perspectives of those who stand beside us in a shared existence. The way Mad Men is written pushes us beyond merely observing to evaluating Don, his peers, and the seemingly “godless environment” of advertising they inhabit. We see Draper’s inconsistencies not as value-neutral, but as fundamentally disjointed, intimately disordered.
In “Notes on Poetry and Religion,”5 the poet Christian Wiman quotes Miguel de Unamumo on what a spiritual transformation of this disorder might entail: “We live in memory, and our spiritual life is at bottom simply the effort of our memory to persist, to transform itself into hope, the effort of our past to transform itself into our future.”
No moment in the show better captures such a desire for personal and professional transformation than the concluding episode of the first season, “The Carousel.” The scene opens with Don preparing a pitch for a group of Kodak executives about their circular tray slide projector. While the men come in expecting a pitch on their product’s innovativeness, Don shifts their perspective:
Technology is a glittering lure, but there is the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash, if they have a sentimental bond with the product. In my first job, I was in-house at a fur company. There was an old pro copywriter, a Greek named Teddy . . . [who] talked about a deeper bond to a product. Nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent.
Don turns down the lights, and clicks the projector through a number of slides. Moving—slowly, methodically—through snapshots of his beautiful wife and children, the room’s far wall becomes etched with still-frame reflections of youthful smiles. He continues:
Teddy told me that in Greek, nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship; it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. Takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called a wheel; it’s called a carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels, round and round, and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.
Don finishes the pitch and the camera zeroes in on his eyes. For a brief moment, he appears to be convinced by his own fractured story. His pitch seems to preach across those multiple identities, to that choir of Dons—past, present, and future—tenuously held together by some integrated and imagined self spinning round the carousel. In that moment, memory and imagination fight their way to the forefront.
Professionally, this is not a pitch justified by a rational focus on product benefits relative to competitors, as the Vatican justifiably, but too narrowly, condones. This campaign is about an aesthetic way of being, a way of understanding one’s life as integrated through memory. And while it does not shy away from the emotional, carnal, intuitive parts of humanity, neither is it primarily driven by manipulation. Draper’s transformation is not completed in this pitch, but neither does it seem fair to view it as but another play at power and influence. Instead, Draper seems lured into the carousel he creates, perhaps sensing that the only vehicle that might link together his worlds is this alternative theological economy of time.
Mad Men is most theological when it articulates the hope offered in memory and imagination rendered transformative. In its characters’ pushes and pulls toward authenticity across time—however fleeting—we see that a move away from an identity based on persuasion and power might yet be one toward a more integrated self. In these moments, we are shown that the good and the beautiful might be revealed in what is yet to come, but perhaps only by first looking deeply into what has been.
- Christian Smith, Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2003).
- Jonathan Haidt, “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment,” Psychological Review 108 (2001): 814–834.
- University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses this language in his work on social intuition, and the outlined attributes are those he finds driving moral judgment across a variety of cultures as shaped by humans’ evolutionary heritage (www.yourmorals.com).
- Robert Greene and Joost Elffers, The 48 Laws of Power (Viking Penguin, 1998), xx–xxi.
- Christian Wiman, “Notes on Poetry and Religion,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin 35, no.1 (Winter 2007): 61.
Peter Boumgarden is a professor of management at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. In addition to teaching and writing, he consults on issues of strategy, innovation, and value-driven business.