The term “Mad Men” refers refers to the advertising executives who work on Madison Avenue in New York City. Madison County has its own group of “Mad Men” – a Ridgeland advertising firm called Mad Genius. We asked its creative director Eric Hughes his thoughts on the show and how it has influenced pop culture.
To better set the stage for his answers, Mad Genius held a “Mad Menius” party in which the entire office dressed like characters from the show.
Q: When did you become a fan?
A: First show, first season. Right off the bat, I was sucked in by the amazing title sequence and then immediately drawn into how Don Draper captured the specific feeling of doom everyone in this business gets at some point – the anguish of watching the hours tick away as a major pitch approaches, and you grasp for the merest shred of a good idea. Then boom! You have it. And I loved the off-the-cuff statements like “C’mon, it’s not like there’s some magical machine that copies everything.”
Q: What drew you into the show?
A: It has it all – compelling characters, an engaging story arc, meticulous artistry in set, props and wardrobe. Then, as the episodes unfold, you’re struck by the audacity of the sexism of that era and the family struggles it addresses through the lens of the business. Now I want to know where this all ends for Don and the rest of the characters. What do they learn? Do they change? Do they come to grips with their choices? Do they regret their sacrifices?
A: Tough choice. My favorite is Peggy Olson. She came in as this completely naive secretary who woke up fast, got her feet back under her, found her talent and made the most of every opportunity. You want her to win.
Q: How has the show influenced pop culture?
A: Actually, I think it might have been a little reverse. I think pop culture might have influenced or spurred the green light of Mad Men. It came along just as pop culture was recognizing and reinventing some of the retro-cool vibe of late ’50s and early ’60s fashion, design and decor. So the show’s producers either planned that or got lucky. Either way, I’m glad they did, and I’m glad it hasn’t inspired a resurgence in skinny ties or fedoras. I look ridiculous in both.
Q: Why do so many people like the show?
A: It’s a combination of an immersive visual world with characters who draw you in. There’s a real retro glamour that’s fascinating, appealing and kind of hilarious all at once. People actually dressed for work, wore hats, dressed for dinner and cookouts. No sweatsuits, Spandex or T-shirts with sarcastic statements. You see how deeply people were buying into their roles and the costumes that came with them. It makes you sort of laugh and then reflect on what you might be buying into today.
Q: What is the overriding message of the show?
A: To me, the core message is about manipulation vs. self-awareness. What influences you? Whom or what do you worship? What are you willing to change about yourself to gain or maintain status? Which is more important to you, career or family? Where do you draw the line? Can you step off the treadmill you allowed yourself to be put out on without hurting the people who depend on you? If you don’t step off, will they be hurt worse?
Q: What does the show say about American society then and now?
A: That while the social norms of business and family have changed, the basic human desires that we choose to balance or be manipulated by don’t. And I think it offers a time-machine that makes a statement on the blatant sexism of the era. You get a clear sense of how hard women had to fight and navigate to establish their place in the corporate world. You see how far America has come. And you get a reality check on how far it has to go.
Q: What does the advertising, as seen in this show, say about American culture?
A: When you look at the outright manipulation that was so obvious, yet so incredibly effective in the advertising in the late ’50s and early ’60s, it’s easy for us to laugh. But all it says is that back then, people were experiencing media and messages that they had no reason to mistrust yet. So you ask yourself, is that happening now? I’d say yes. It’s just through different media. Look at magazine covers in the checkout aisle today and the level of influence celebrity worship has on us (especially on kids). You realize pretty quickly that the decades haven’t made our culture immune to our vanity or our desires. Not by a long shot.
Q: As an advertising/PR executive, can you relate to the show?
A: I relate to the pressures of pitching and winning business on a very personal level. The show does a good job of giving you a taste of what it feels like: Imagine walking into an executive conference room having slept only four hours in the last two days, and getting one hour to win or lose a game-changing piece of business. Winning or losing will be based solely on your ability to present a better idea more convincingly than the similarly dressed team that just walked out of that same room. The intensity of effort to simply get a team in that room intensifies the elation you have when you win. Or the sick feeling when you don’t.
Q: When we watch this show, are we seeing the good old days? What is your thoughts on the phrase “good old days” in these terms?
A: When were the “good old days?” Are they today and we just don’t know it? It’s relative. I think we can all say the pre-recession days were some “good old days,” right? When we watch this show, we’re seeing a time of dramatic change in corporate America, feminism and family dynamics. You hear some people say, “It’s not like the good old days when women stayed at home.” But I think you’d have to ask those women if those were the “good old days” for them.
–LaReeca Rucker, The Clarion-Ledger