PRINT October 2008



AMONG THE MORE INTRIGUING SCENES in the AMC television series Mad Men, a drama set in the offices of a prominent New York advertising company at the beginning of the 1960s, is a sequence in which a few of the firm’s executives sit down to view freshly minted commercials for the day’s presidential candidates, Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy. The contrast in styles couldn’t be starker: Nixon sits stolidly at his desk, enumerating his qualifications in clear terms before somberly conveying his views on what he considers the nation’s most pressing issues; Kennedy, by contrast, appears in his commercial only as a smiling picture bouncing through an animated cartoon accompanied by a jingle worthy of My Fair Lady. It isn’t long before the admen—who, as it happens, are in charge of reinventing Nixon’s campaign image—are shaking their heads in disbelief at the fact that the 1960 election is fast becoming a toss-up. “It should have never been this close,” says Don Draper, the firm’s creative director, noting that his client is a person of substance and, what’s more, offers a compelling story, having made himself from nothing. “Kennedy, I see a silver spoon,” he says. “Nixon, I see myself.”

Audiences watching this episode are bound to grasp its metaphorical potential as the current United States election season nears its conclusion. Indeed, the television show in its entirety seems to offer no small amount of astute, if veiled, commentary on the present. Time and again, the executives, whose worldviews are steeped in their personal experiences during World War II and the Korean War, are stumped not just by Kennedy but by a whole unfamiliar cultural logic on the rise. (Befuddled by the VW Bug’s growing popularity, one of them laughs: “Last time I saw one of those, I think I was throwing a grenade into it.”) In this way the ’60s adman serves as a kind of everyman for today’s United States, where, underlying the political volleys of Left and Right alike, lurks the anxious suspicion (and, in some quarters, denial) that the determinants of cultural identity during the past century—energy resources, wealth, power—have already assumed radically different characters, even as they are yet to be quantified and articulated in the popular consciousness. In this regard, it seems a fitting irony that, if Mad Men functions as allegory, the drama takes as its setting an ad agency, that place where the world is refigured into representation, organized into a narrative revolving around prompts for desire and identification, illumination and reflexivity—but only at the direction of self-interested parties. As one interstitial recently aired by the show’s producers puts it, quoting media scholar Jef I. Richards: “Creative without strategy is called ‘art.’ Creative with strategy is called ‘advertising.’”

But it is perhaps on the border between the two—art and advertising—that the current presidential contest is being fought. And, of course, while Mad Men’s executives are forced to keep pace with the quickly shifting terms of society and consumer culture, they are, in 1960, yet to face similarly radical alterations in the fabric of media itself—the likes of which provide us with some of the greatest challenges of our time (particularly when it comes to surmising, and then addressing, the many other challenges we face). When describing the specific ways in which advertisements are taking the place of political discourse in the current election cycle, for instance, national media outlets have begun to take note of their own immediate migration to every new spot produced by the campaigns (something that had previously been the purview of local television). This kind of attention has contributed in turn to a change in the character of the advertisements themselves, which are increasingly contoured for an expanded media-sphere: Campaigns and outside groups regularly produce “ghost” or “vapor” advertisements that are posted online but rarely appear anywhere else, designed as they are primarily to be reported on and, in effect, disseminated by news organizations. Subsequently, the assertions made therein often outpace any measure of veracity, with fiction becoming fact in the arena of consensus; further, the content of any communication is quickly eclipsed by its own coverage (a cover of “fog”), making any message, however simple, increasingly difficult to convey and maintain.

It is at such a moment that “messages” begin to operate almost solely within a language of images, functioning by creating impressions and associations—generating affect and sustaining emotional appeals (and even by turning to raw manipulation, if the role played by gender in this election is any indication). One feels at home with a candidate; or else makes a decision based on gut instinct. Perception reigns, however fleetingly. (To repeat a notorious quote from Rick Davis, John McCain’s campaign manager: “This election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.”) We are living, in fact, in a dreamlike scenario resembling nothing so much as the opening credit sequence of Mad Men, where, in a visual passage rich in implication for the American unconscious, a silhouetted businessman falls from a high skyscraper, surrounded by images superimposed on the surrounding architecture—prompting in viewers the inevitable question of how one’s orientation might be regained. Art obtains a unique relevance in this context: As the language of images subsumes the battleground of the public sphere, our ability to discern and decipher the politics of representation—and this is the unique purview of art—assumes a new urgency.