“Mad Men”, the 60s, and the Triumph of Neoliberalism: Carol Lipton’s Review

Last Wednesday, I took a walk that I had not taken for many years: I went from 38th Street and Second Avenue to 59th and Lexington, revisiting much of the scenery and streets I used to pass by every day as a summer letter carrier in Grand Central Station in 1970. It was the height of the Vietnam War. Kent State and the war were raw, open sores on the nation’s psyche. I passed 57th Street, and was struck by something I had not noticed in many years: the Juan Valdez coffee room, where I used to go at the end of my morning route for a free cup of Columbian coffee. I felt a cringe of embarrassment, thinking how to my college self, getting a free cup of espresso in midtown Manhattan was an incredibly exciting event.

I thought back to the endless sun-drenched afternoons walking up Park Avenue, a 37-pound load of mail on my back, sporting my third change of work shirt, off to the afternoon Special Delivery runs that would terminate at UN Plaza, Beekman Place and Tudor City, and how a small treat like a free cup of coffee would make my day.

I thought of how embarrassingly neocolonialist its “El Exigente” ad campaign was, and the yawning chasm between the sanitized advertising image of the friendly coffee grower and the brutal realities of coffee plantations and the assassination of labor leaders South America.  I realized how the loss of any remaining illusions about the corporate machinations that took place in the canyons of midtown obliterated any traces of youthful excitement about being on those streets. What I felt was the opposite of all  tributes to the glories of Midtown, whether Sinatra’s or JZ’s. For me, there was neither hope nor charm.

Midtown in 2015 was vastly different terrain from 70s midtown. Gone were the low-level apartment buildings, the dozens of small cafes and restaurants, coffee houses, working class bars, and boutiques, especially the ones that dotted 54th and Third Avenue, where  Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell were said to be regular customers.  In their place were glass and concrete cenotaphs, interspersed with  a monotonous run of chain stores and banks.

My walk served as the perfect prelude for the final episode of “Mad Men”. The “Mad Men” finale was, whether intentional or not, a stark commentary on the triumph of globalization and return to normalcy after the tumultuous and disorienting cultural upheaval of the 1960s. The ending of “Mad Men” was a master stroke. With a modicum of imagery, Matthew Weiner brilliantly portrayed the co-optation of the counterculture.

The ending, a replay of the most iconic TV ad of the 1970s, the 1971 Coke commercial, was in effect a bookend to a scene at the the beginning of the series, when the War in Vietnam had begun to escalate.  Don Draper is seen visiting a coffeehouse in Greenwich Village, intently watching as a folk singer on acoustic guitar sings the mournful and elegiac “By The Waters of Babylon”. The singer, a humble young man in nondescript clothing, is the opposite of Don, the Brill Cream Adonis. The song is sung in round robin style reminiscent of a Greek chorus.  Its emotional refrain, “We lay down and wept, and wept, for these our young” stands in plaintive contrast to Don Draper’s polished and impervious facade.

The series returns to the War in Vietnam in the final episodes, as Sally’s childhood friend enlists in the army, and she angrily denounces him. She becomes the moral center of “Mad Men”. Don, who had been slowly losing the ability to manage his game of 12-dimensional profligacy, finally hits rock bottom. He’s forced to confront the flotsam and jetsam of his life: the fake identity, the betrayal of his children’s trust, his 19 secret relationships, the lingering shame of his upbringing in poverty. In the final scenes, Don’s emotions finally surface, and he seems to allow himself to feel genuine feelings.

In one of the most touching scenes in the series, he bids farewell by phone to Betty, who is dying of lung cancer brought on by years of heavy smoking, made more tragic by the irony of its protagonist’s occupation. For Don Draper is no ordinary man losing his ex-wife to cancer. He’s one of advertising’s reigning geniuses, whose daring, innovative ad copy plumbs the depth of the American psyche, creating indelible imagery to manipulate the wants and needs of Americans so they will crave his clients’ products. Has the tragic specter of the Grace Kelly-like Betty stoically facing an agonizing death resulted in Don finally acknowledging his role as America’s uber-pusher? Matthew Weiner, like Jules Pfeiffer’s Dancer, answers both “yes” and “no”, and seeks to perfect both answers.

Like a scorpion stung by its own stinger, none of the employees of Sterling Cooper will be immune to the potency of the subliminal payload delivered by their ads. While Betty is the first to die of cancer, we can easily imagine the rest of Sterling Cooper’s staff, who not only smoke but drink like there’s no tomorrow, following suit.

In an early episode, about Don’s meeting with Lucky Strike, after announcing that the Reader’s Digest had now made it impossible to discuss cigarettes and health in the same sentence, he creates a brand identity based on Lucky Strike cigarettes being “toasted”. Weiner strongly hints at Roger’s inevitable death from smoking, as he continues his multi-pack habit following a near-fatal heart attack and dire warnings from his doctor. In one of the last episodes, he visits Joan to tell her he’s left the bulk of his fortune to their out-of-wedlock son.

The escalation of our national penchant for addiction parallels the increasing desperation driving the global search for raw materials and resources that stokes the engine of capitalism. Forty-five years after Mad Men’s ending, multinationals have virtually cannibalized the earth, laying waste its mountains, trees, lakes, rivers, and oceans. Like a mainlining junkie, cranes drill into its veins and arteries, extracting minerals, oil, and natural gas, looking for that angry fix.  From 1970 until the present, most of the Amazon rainforest has vanished. The men who rule America’s corporations have not only caused millions of death from lung disease, they’ve also destroyed the lungs of the planet.

In 1970, the year “Mad Men” ends, the paroxysms of outrage over the assassinations of MLK, RFK, Malcolm X, and Kent State were reaching a crescendo. The massive social protest that produced the hippie counterculture as an alternative model to mass consumption had become a force to be reckoned with.  Its values represented a threat to corporate culture simply by their refusal to participate in conventional dress or grooming.

Millions of American youth stopped consuming the products that Madison Avenue wanted to sell. Rock ‘n’ roll anthems like “Satisfaction” and dozens of other records derided advertising, and its “useless information supposed to fire our imagination”. The Who cut an album “The Who Sell Out”, with fun-house style cover photos mocking deodorant ads and Roger Daltrey taking a bath in Heinz beans. 1970 saw the first Women’s Liberation march, and women abandoning the use of grooming products, high heels, and perfume.

Don Draper finds himself in California at the end of a cross-country journey to find himself.  He’s seen surrounded by hippie women who wear no makeup, braid their hair and tie it with ribbons. He wants to abandon it all. He goes to find himself in Big Sur and Esalen. Peggy pleads with him to return to the office, reminding him that the Coke account is waiting, promising him that he can always come back. In the final scene, we see Don at Esalen, having first had all his belongings looted from his East Side apartment by his clever French Canadian mother-in-law, now abandoning his car.  He amazingly has given up smoking. We see him in the lotus position in an al fresco yoga class, deeply inhaling the California mountain air, seemingly at peace and smiling, the Bodhisattva of Madison Avenue.

This cuts, without explanation, to the show’s final scene, of the iconic 1971 Coke commercial. But Weiner provides us with an irrefutable clue to the meaning of this scene: one of the women wears her hair with the identical braids tied in red ribbons as the Big Sur receptionist. It’s clear that Don designed the ad campaign. The commercial itself, a master stroke of advertising, shows about 100 people from different countries singing the refrain “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony”, and finishes with “Coke. It’s the Real Thing”. It employs every hippie, peace and love trope, and a catchy, sing-along song, to sell Coca Cola.

Here are gentle, fresh-faced, idealistic youth, seemingly from every nation on the planet, all joining together to have a Coke. Just as Coca Cola has cannibalized the land and culture of indigenous peoples, it now engulfs and merges with hippie iconography and language to create a potent image. It is an image designed to expand Coca Cola’s global market to include the counterculture and the Third World. It promises to deliver the world to peace, harmony, and greater understanding, just as Africa is poised to plunge into mass starvation, drought, and the AIDS pandemic. The 1971 Coke ad can now be seen for what it was: the watershed moment that signaled the reification of countercultural values and the sanitized culture of the 70s.

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, it’s obvious that Don mined his deepest experiences to create the ad, an apt metaphor for the remarkable tenacity and mutability of capital. This Coke campaign’s multiracial cast and veneer of peace and harmony would become the template for every non-profit emergency relief campaign thereafter, most notably “We Are The World”. At the center of the photo is the blonde hippie manqué, wearing the same braids tied with red ribbons as the Esalen receptionist. She’s wearing a red and white dress, and stands resplendent against an expanse of blue sky, a living, breathing Star Spangled Banner.

Many people in the past week have discussed how May 4, 1970 and Kent State sounded the death knell for the 60s. I think that the final bell tolled on September 11, 1973, with the coup in Chile. It was the death of hope, the killing of a government that had dared to nationalize multinational assets in an attempt to wrest control over its own resources from the talons of global capital. Vance Packard, in his classic work on advertising, “The Hidden Persuaders”, warned Americans that we were being manipulated and tracked into consumption categories from cradle to grave, and that advertising was robbing us of the ability to think critically. The legacy of the 1971 Coke campaign is very much alive. It is the triumph of image over reality, of illusion over substance, of slogans over critical thought, that is the hallmark of neoliberalism.


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