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29/07/08

Mad Men: Books as psychological (product) placement

Sunday saw the opening of the second season of Mad Men; the drama set in a Madison Avenue ad agency in the early 1960s.

Mad Men is brilliant for all sorts of reasons, but one thing it does very well is show the cracks emerging in a society as it shifts from life as it always was (men working, women having babies, men drinking, women having problems, men having affairs, the women having to get rid of those babies etc) to life as it will be.

In this case, life as it will be is shown the by occasional hipsters that Don Draper (our conflicted, everyman hero) encounters – and who occasionally prick his bubble. The hipsters don’t get him – in fact they loath him and his suits, three-martini-lunches, and despotic capitalism, selling more stuff to people who don’t need it. Instead the hipsters are into reefer, jazz – and literature.

In season one we saw DD join one of his mistresses (the illustrator, and more interesting one, IMHO) and her stoned, goateed beatnik friends go to a beat poetry night. The drama here was that Don didn’t get it at all – and by implication, lost his mistress to the new world – and retreated back to the world he knows and feels safe in: the world of newspapers and truth, rather than literature, poetry and ideas. (Don is always pictured with newspaper, never a book.)

Yet – in this week’s episode, Don is lunching alone at a bar (shirking his work responsibilities) and the guy next to him is reading a book. It turns out it’s a book of poems, rather than (as I thought) a play. The guy (borderline beatnik) tells Don, after looking at him, that he “doesn’t think he’ll like it”. Don buys the book, and the episode closes with him in voiceover reading from it, whilst posting a copy to (we assume) one of his (other) mistresses:

Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.

Clearly, Don is in trouble.

A few things strike me. The first is that (as we saw with Lost), producers seem to enjoy referencing real books into their plots, letting the viewers go to town on doing the reading, albeit between the lines. (I anticipate a slew of articles this week (as there were for Lost) talking about the massive hike in sales for the book – Meditations in An Emergency – as a result of a recommendation by Don. Let’s hope the broadcasters don’t try to actually publish the short stories that the juniors of the office are competing with each other over getting into the Atlantic.)

The second is that, in this context, liking poetry is used as short hand for Don’s psychological turmoil. Don is not only reading poetry, but he’s sending it to someone whilst thinking of them. Don may read a novel here or there – something manly, crime, and hard-boiled, perhaps Chandler – but nothing that disrupts his world view. Clearly, if he’s reading poetry, this season is going to show Don’s issues coming to the surface.

But I think the book is also used as a symbol for our – as in modern – psychological turmoil: I was struck by how the book, in another context (a contemporary drama) would look anachronistic. Here however – for all the turmoil it signifies to Don – it became, and was possibly used as, another nostalgia trigger. Like much else in the series, the book provides us with a window into a simpler life – although we are also warned that life didn’t feel any simpler for Don, or indeed Mrs, Draper.

One thing is for sure; it’s pure nostalgic indulgence for anyone in publishing to watch a series where books are portrayed as cool, counter-cultural – and dangerous, rather than geek-fodder.

Update:

Since I wrote this, I’ve seen a few articles talking about exactly this – not least Freakonomics! Oops. Here are some links:
Freakonomics:

I clicked over to Amazon to check the book’s sales rank a few minutes after Draper read the book. A rather mediocre No. 15,565. This morning, at 8:30 a.m., the book was ranked No. 161. That probably represents only 50 or 100 copies sold, but it’s a pretty fantastic leap for a 50-year-old book of poems.

AMCTV: Evolution of an ad campaign (shows Don with Newspaper)

The Ampersand

AMC’s buzzed-about drama Mad Men launched its second season last night. Aside from the attention to detail, clever writing and sharp acting, one of the things that stands out about the series – and makes it sing – is its subtle nods to literature.

They also clear me up on Don’s reading material: Exodus by Leon Uris and:

The Best of Everything, a 1958 novel by Rona Jaffe about a group of young women working in a publishing company

New York Magazine: Don Draper’s Bookshelf

Clearly, Mad Men isn’t just nostalgic for the days when men tossed back Scotch — but for the days when they tossed back Scotch and read books too!

Recent Posts:

Stanza: ebooks for iPhone
Harlequin: Enriched
The iPod Moment for Books

Recent apt Studio work:
Granta Magazine: The Magazine of New Writing
James Frey: Bright Shiny Morning
Stephenie Meyer: “The next J.K. Rowling”

Posted by Peter Collingridge in Future