Mad Men at the Edge of Play

TV ad execs explore the boundaries of fun and decency in a retro dramedy.

Posted May 04, 2012

Thanks to the magic of on-demand video my wife and I have been catching up with Mad Men, a glamorous drama set in the early 1960s in an emblematic Madison Ave advertising agency—Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce. The title animation pictures in high contrast black-and-white the figure of an executive (likely Don Draper from the creative side) in magical free fall from one of Manhattan’s skyscrapers. On the way down he floats past alluring images of cutting-edge consumer culture, but before he hits bottom the scene resolves, revealing the ad exec on his office couch in silhouette, one arm slung back. It appears as if Draper is holding on against the precariousness of his enterprise, which balances at the brink of client whim, economic vicissitude, and the fleeting sense of what’s cool. The series vividly samples the context of the early 1960s, perhaps most jarringly in the pervasive nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol habits. In fact, the jazzed characters in Mad Men seem to live on nothing but cigarettes, coffee, whiskey, and one more thing that’s especially interesting here, the creative buzz.

With the exhilaration of inventive acts like designing the art and writing the copy for a convincing advertising campaign against an impossible deadline, the creative work itself often equaled play for these ad men and women. When social psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi itemized the skills and strengths of creative people he noted their open-mindedness, brain power, and a knack for balancing contradictory traits. He pointed out that their high-wire act entailed straddling introversion and extroversion. They showed a talent for holding fantasy and reality in mind simultaneously; they had a gift for nurturing passion alongside objectivity. They harmonized rebelliousness and teamwork. Most important, they demonstrated a flair for balancing discipline and playfulness. What, besides big bonuses, could compensate for the day-to-day weightlessness and insecurity inherent at the marketing storm front? Csikszentmihalyi called it “flow”—elation, excitement, total involvement in the zone, and fun. And I regard it as a prime dividend of play.

Though running at the forefront rewarded these pioneers, cultural currents sometimes threatened to swamp them. Mostly, in Mad Men comedy comes to the rescue. When the firm’s largest account—Lucky Strike—deserted, for example, the chain-smoking Draper responded with a brilliant, if insincere, open letter, “Why I Quit Tobacco,” refusing to promote a newly discovered health hazard. The American Cancer Society quickly hired the agency, saving the day.

But comic twists failed to bail out the advertising men in two other important scenes. Both of which focused in a timely way on the failure to balance discipline and playfulness over issues just gathering at the time—“women’s liberation” and civil rights.

In the first, the boys at the office are having fun at the expense of the boss’s slinky, young, new wife. The previous weekend, she had staged a surprise birthday bash in their hip mid-century modern Upper East Side high rise apartment. During the festivities, she joined the party band in a version of the breathy French Top 40 hit Zou Bisou Bisou (“Kiss Kiss”). A former junior copywriter at the firm, she later walked in on one of the TV division producers during an off color rhapsody about her performance. But as she keeps quiet about the insults the joke turns on the perp. He guesses he’ll be fired for the outrage and so apologizes to everyone who’ll listen, assuming incorrectly that they’ve also heard of his offense. Thus the punishment turns out to fit the crime. By spreading his shame, he managed to appear feckless as well as boorish.

The second occasion unfolded as a noisy civil rights equal-employment demonstration distracted the copywriters at a rival agency Young and Rubicam (Y&R). Hooting with laughter, the agency boys devised a prank, filling paper lunch bags at the tap to launch at the protesters below. I blurted out at the screen, “Jerks!” My wife who is surprised by precisely none of the Mad Men’s behavior—she’s been in the creative end of the business since she turned twenty two—chimed in. A delegation soon rode the elevator up to confront the pranksters, and they encountered in the anteroom the stalwart receptionist. She denied that anyone at Y&R could have been involved in such a juvenile stunt. At just that inconvenient moment the pranksters tumbled out of an office, giggling, with reloaded water bombs in hand. Discovered, dressed down, abashed, and looking comically like naughty 12 year olds, they learned a profound lesson about decency and the limits of play—a boundary that our culture is still exploring and contesting this half-century later.