Mad Men, Advertising and the Trix Rabbit

A Hard PlaceI just finished watching season six of Mad Men. From season one, episode one, all through the series, my most prominent thought was, boy, we’ve come along way.

But, on second thought, have we?

The characters on the show drink too much, smoke too much, have extra-marital affairs and end up divorced. The show takes place in New York City, mostly in the 60’s, a time when women were paid less than men for the same job and were often sexually exploited.

What’s so different?

Okay, some of us now eat quinoa instead of white bread with American cheese, and nobody’s lighting up in a crowded elevator or openly drinking on the job.

Thanks to advertising, ironically, we’ve grown significantly more aware, in some areas, through campaigns like:

Give A Hoot, Don’t Pollute Just Say No This Is Your Brain On Drugs Buckle Up, It’s the Law Stay Alive, Don’t Text and Drive

But what’s really changed?

Don Draper, the main character in Mad Men, is a handsome, hard-working, successful alcoholic who cheats on his wife, neglects his children and ends up divorced without ever stepping into a therapist’s office. He has little understanding of how his childhood traumas, being raised in a whorehouse by a tyrant father and a less than nurturing stepmother, are affecting him.

American culture, then and now, tends to focus on externals; the big house, the beautiful wife, well-dressed children; and ad agencies capitalize on these desires, often introducing us to things we didn’t even know we wanted, getting us to buy certain products, and buy into specific ideas.

Some of the most memorable slogans from my childhood were from the Cracker Jacks campaign:

The More You Eat, The More You Want.

A Prize in Every Box.

And the Lay’s potato chip ad:

Betcha Can’t Eat Just One.

These ads exploit the American dream, tying our feelings of worthiness (or lack of worthiness) into materialism and greed. These ads refer to concepts way bigger than the products they are selling. They instruct a way of life. American life.

And we buy into them. Over the last three decades we've seen obesity become a national issue.

Ad companies prey on our weaknesses in order to sell and we are being manipulated on the most primal level: our need to be loved, our need for connection.

Read the NY Times review, Psst. Look Over Here, to see how ad agencies have used, and still use, our basic human needs to influence us. Did you know we have a subconscious craving for eye contact and that characters like Aunt Jemima, the Quaker Oats man and the Trix rabbit are manipulated so that their gaze meets ours, and as a result we are more likely to choose those brands over others?

Without revealing too much, in case you are not caught up with Mad Men, when season six ends, the viewer is left with some hope. Hope that Don Draper will get it right. We want him to be happy. (Another American luxury).

But we, just like Don Draper, need to understand that true serenity lies in what’s internal (self-awareness, self-acceptance and self-love), not external (fancy cars and designer suits) because those things can never genuinely satiate. (The More You Eat, The More You Want.)

Imagine a future, where we are sustained from within, and can no longer be seduced by the Sun Maid girl, or her controlling smile.

Now that would be real change.