Thomas Frank on Mad Men

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First aired on Q (02/08/13)


The TV drama Mad Men, which recreates the world of a Madison Avenue ad agency in the 1960s, has won high praise from the viewing audience and critics alike. But one person who resisted tuning in to the series until recently was Thomas Frank, author of the influential 1997 book The Conquest of Cool, which examines the advertising industry of the 1960s and its relationship with the emerging counter-culture.

When he finally did start watching the acclaimed series, Frank went on a binge viewing session (his essay on the subject is in the August issue of Harper's). He joined Q guest host and marketing man Terry O'Reilly to talk about his impressions of the show and its cultural milieu.

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Why didn't he watch before? "I think it was too close to the subject that I spent so many years working on and writing on," Frank admitted.

There were two main aspects of the show that struck Frank. "The show is an exercise in two things. First of all [is] this really heavy-handed nostalgia for the early 60s," he said. "But the other aspect of the show is this critique of the sort of American civilization of the 1960s and of the 1950s, a sort of classic postwar critique."

Frank described the same dynamics in The Conquest of Cool. "What's interesting about them is that whenever we talk about advertising from that period, the conversation immediately gets swamped by nostalgia," he said, adding, "I think it's because advertising from back then presents an idealized, perfect world that lends itself to nostalgia."

Frank said he was fascinated by the way that Mad Men also incorporates the classic social critique of the era. "How can you have a show that deals in nostalgia that's this strong and at the same time deal in social criticism, which the show does?" He pointed out that it "embraces a certain critique of consumer society" and conformity.

Frank came to the conclusion that in fact the nostalgia is in part for the "reassuring" form of social criticism prevalent in the 1960s. "Oh, for the day when our problems were soul-deadening conformity and too much affluence," Frank said.

When asked how the ad exec became a symbol of all that was wrong with society, Frank commented that the advertising industry didn't have much of a profile in popular culture until the late 1940s. "It developed through the '40s and '50s and really came into full flower in the 1960s, when the show is set," he said. He cited a series of novels published in the 1950s that expressed a "mix of contempt and fondness, because on the one hand, these guys are basically liars, making their living by deceiving everybody, but on the other hand, they're living a high life that everyone lusts after...It's the same dynamic in Mad Men that appeals to so many people."

In his book, Frank describes how anxiety about conformity was absorbed into 1960s advertising and used to sell products. 'In my mind this is the most important thing about the advertising industry in the 1960s," he said. "It embraced this very critique that we're talking about...this critique of consumer society as being this place of soul-deadening conformity."

Frank pointed out that Mad Men grew in popularity through the financial crisis of 2008-2009 and the recession. He reasons that "it's nostalgia, not only for the ads and the period," but also for a time when what was wrong with America seemed relatively simple. "As we learned from the headlines, while Mad Men was airing, the problems with capitalism are much more deep-seated, much more essential," he said. "This country went through a 19th-century-style financial crisis, you know, and almost destroyed the entire world economy." The real problem with capitalism, Frank added, is that there are "banks that are able to wreck the economy of entire nations... That's what's really wrong with capitalism. It's not that it makes you conform."





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