The Duke of Madison Avenue Meets the Sage of St. Joseph Street


Originally published in Applied Arts Magazine, 2015



The final season of Mad Men is upon us, and bids us reflect on its meaning.

Don Draper’s denouement is all but inevitable. You know his comeback is an existential ruse; his past, which he has attempted to bury like the corpse from whom he ripped his faux identity, will give him no quarter, much as he attempts to elude it through drink and philandery. He’s going down, and we want to watch it happen.

But he is both a sage and a willing agent of the dark side of human desire. He intuitively understands our foibles and weaknesses, and consistently divines how to appeal to them in the most disarming and compelling ways. He understands his role as a kind of commercial shaman. He knows what limbic buttons to push to make a sale. He is the quintessential hidden persuader.


Marshall McLuhan (oh, I know it’s no longer fashionable to quote the sage of St. Joseph Street, but I don’t care) once said that there is a symbiotic relationship between news stories and advertising imagery: the news, which is usually bad, needs the ads, which are always good. In a nod to McLuhan, Don Draper points out to his tobacco client in an early episode that advertising is not about truth, but about happiness. In the face of mounting evidence of tobacco’s link to lung cancer, Lucky Strike needs way to keep selling cigarettes. Don’s answer? “It’s toasted.”

There is no such thing as bad news in advertising.


McLuhan also said that the art form that we will remember the most from the 20th century will not be performance art or abstract art — as definitive of the modernist canon as these forms have come to be — but advertising art. And here we are, 15 years into the 21st, with our eyes glued to the tube to witness ’60s-era suits wallow in their booze-soaked, smoke-filled offices, groping their secretaries and schmoozing their clients, all the while greasing the constantly turning wheels of late capitalist commerce. High art can’t come close to competing with the allure of camp TV.

Now that the series is coming to a close, the final episodes are embellished by commentary from various pundits and players, as if we need forgiveness for watching (face it — it’s unabashed voyeurism). Instead of enlightening us, they give us permission to succumb to the show’s magnetic nostalgia. “I love the sets, the design, the wardrobe, the drama — I love it all!” drools a Hollywood producer during the commercial break. Thanks, we needed that. Now we can sleep.

It’s ironic that McLuhan, the most perspicacious cultural observer of his time, peaked in the sixties, for this is the decade leading to Don Draper’s demise, and with him, the beginning of the end of advertising. Oh, advertising is taking its time recognizing that it’s dead. Like the rifle held aloft by Charlton Heston at the NRA convention of 2000, advertising will have to be torn from the “cold dead hands” of its apologists before its pathetic finale. In the meantime, we’ll happily drink Coke and gorge on Orville Redenbacher as we watch Don drink and grope his way down the far-famed avenue of Mad Menwn

will novosedlik