Mad Men and Philosophy edited by Rod Carveth and James B. South
If you had asked me a few years ago which television show you should absolutely make time to watch, I would have immediately told you to start watching Mad Men. Deep, complicated, and made with great attention to detail, it is a show that rewards viewers. The characters reveal themselves over time, minor plot elements emerge as major turning points, and they give us 21st-century viewers a chance to look at the ’60s in a whole new light. The show had had three outstanding seasons, and up until that point, I would have recommended it unreservedly.Until they dropped my brother from the cast.
I understand that I did not really default to my rational soul in this instance. The third season was one giant setup for the surprise ending in which Sterling Cooper is bought out (again) and Don and Lane hatch a plan to break away with all the staff and clients they could carry. In this situation, they needed their strongest people, and when it came down to choosing writers, there was no question that Peggy Olsen was a better writer than Paul Kinsey. It had been shown again and again during the season, so that when Kinsey was left twisting in the wind at the end, it made sense – from a writing perspective.
That didn’t mean I had to like it.
So when season four rolled around, I started to download the episodes, but I resisted watching them. I just sulked. Was I being childish? Immature? Petty? We may never know the answers to those questions, but I can tell you this – the reason I finally gave in and started watching it again was this book.Part of the Pop Culture and Philosophy genre of books, this volume takes a deep, intellectual look at the series, examining its characters, its ethics and its messages, to see what kind of lessons we can learn from it. From Aristotle to Ayn Rand, thousands of years of human thinking are illustrated in this tv show, and the authors who have contributed to the book are able to tease fascinating concepts from whiskey and smoke. How do Betty, Joan and Peggy represent second-wave feminism? What are the responsibilities of advertisers to their target audience? How might be Peggy a Nietzschean Superwoman, and why does Pete fail so hard? Is Don Draper a good man, and would Ayn Rand have salivated over him, as Bert Cooper claimed she would? The book is full of interesting ideas, and I’ll share a few of my favorites with you.
In “Pete, Peggy, Don, and the Dialectic of Remembering and Forgetting,” John Fritz examines the Nietzschean virtue of willing forgetfulness and how it applies to these three characters. The way it goes is this: Nietzsche believed that the past should serve the present, that you should be able to use your memories to push yourself forward. Not all memories do this, as we all know, and to hold on to memories that simply hold us back – to live in the past – is detrimental to leading a good life. Pete Campbell, for example, perpetually lives in the past. He can’t forget anything, especially if it is something he perceives as a slight against him. When Ken Cosgrove gets a story published, Pete stews over it, bitter that Ken did something worthwhile and he did not. Rather than do the adult thing – congratulate Ken and move on – Pete cannot let go. He ends up nearly forcing his wife into the arms of another man just to try and match Ken’s accomplishment. Pete’s inability to forget causes him almost constant distress.Don is a little better. Don knows that you need to forget things, and tries to live that way. When his estranged brother shows up, Don tells him, “My life moves in only one direction – forward.” He chooses to forget the things he has done if they will interfere with the way his life is going now. When he gets into a car accident, and Peggy has to bail him out, he doesn’t remember to pay her back until she very pointedly reminds him. It’s probable that he used this willing forgetfulness as part of his strategy to cheat on Betty. The only way to live both lives at once is to forget the one that will cause you trouble, and then recall it when it’s time to get some nookie again.
But Don’s not perfect. His memories are triggered again and again – sights and smells bring him back to his childhood, to his abusive father, and to the traumatic day in Korea when he became someone else. Don’s past follows him, like a loyal dog, occasionally nipping at his heels and reminding him where he came from, no matter how much Don would like to forget it.
Peggy, on the other hand, is the champion of willing forgetfulness. The birth of the child she had with Pete is a fantastic example of this, and my favorite moment is when she finally tells Pete what had happened. She sits him down, and very calmly explains that she had his baby and then gave it away, and the tone of her voice is less exciting than someone talking about the new shoes she has bought. Peggy forgot about the baby – she chose to forget about the baby, no matter how much her family and Father Whatawaste tried to remind her. But for this one moment, she unpacked it, held it out at arm’s length just long enough to tell Pete, and then she wrapped it up again and buried it in her mind. Peggy knows that there are things in her past that will hold her back if she clings to them, so she doesn’t. In this way, she is the model of Nietzsche’s virtue of willing forgetfulness.In “‘In on It’: Honesty, Respect, and the Ethics of Advertising,” Andrea Novakovic and Tyler Whitney ask about what ethical rules bind advertising, if any, and how advertisers relate to consumers. The essay centers around the season 2 episode, “A Night to Remember,” wherein Don uses his wife as a demographic model for Heineken beer. During her meticulously-planned dinner party, full of international cuisine, Betty reveals that they are drinking Heineken, from Holland, which comes as a welcome surprise to Don and Duck Phillips. Betty is upset by this, and after the party accuses Don of purposefully embarrassing and humiliating her, and Don doesn’t quite get what the problem is. No surprise there.
But does Betty have a legitimate beef with Don and Sterling Cooper? Well, that depends on why she bought the Heineken. If she bought it because she likes it, or because she had heard good things about it, then no. But she suspects that Don had done his research too well, and that the only reason she picked up those nice green bottles was because he knew her so well that he could make her think she wanted to buy it. From her point of view, he manipulated her, (which in fancy-pants philosophical terms might be called depriving someone of agency) and then laughed about it. Don has shown no respect for his wife and her ability to make choices on her own, and this reflects the larger issue of respect between advertisers and the consumers they target.It is, of course, a challenging topic, even within the show. In the pilot episode, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” Don actively rejects psychological profiling in coming up with an ad for Lucky Strike, yet in that season’s finale, “The Wheel,” he is quite clearly using psychological manipulation to sell his idea for Kodak’s Carousel. So what is the difference between profiling Betty to sell beer and using nostalgia to sell a slide projector? It’s a matter of respect. It is easy for people watching the Kodak ad to understand what is going on in an ad that uses their memories to evoke an emotional response. The advertiser respects the consumer’s intelligence and agency, and uses that to sell their product. In Betty’s case, however, the manipulation was more subtle. Display techniques, signage, subtle and professional methods which start from the assumption that the consumer doesn’t know her own mind.
Finally, in “What Fools We Were: Mad Men, Hindsight, and Justification,” Landon W. Schurtz asks the question we all asked about the people in this show: how could they be so dumb? I mean, when Betty’s daughter shows up with a dry-cleaning bag over her head, Betty is angrier about the possible state of her clothes than the chance her daughter could suffocate. When we first meet Sal Romano, he is so ridiculously gay that we can’t believe no one notices. And Sterling-Cooper gleefully take on Richard Nixon as a candidate when we all know what the man is clearly a crook. From our perspective, these things seem completely obvious, yet the characters on Mad Men just don’t seem to know any better. So why is that?Well, it depends on what you mean by the word “know,” and that’s what Schurtz tries to figure out in this essay. We can know things through direct experience, for example, but Betty has probably never had a daughter asphyxiate on plastic, Don and the others have probably never met an openly gay man, and, well, historians still don’t know how Nixon convinced America that he wasn’t a weasel in an ill-fitting suit. We can know things through the testimony of others, but again – those bits of knowledge hadn’t quite permeated the culture yet. Even if they had, whom could you trust for accurate testimony? Don rejects Doctor Guttman’s suggestions for the Lucky Strike campaign because he rejects the significance of psychological research. The elders of Sterling Cooper continued to reject Pete’s ideas because they didn’t believe young people could know anything worth knowing.
In short, no – the people in the ’60s weren’t stupid. They just didn’t know any better.This book got me to give up my sulk and start watching Mad Men again. Even though it is clearly diminished with the absence of Paul Kinsey, I was reminded that the show is immensely complex and worth the time to watch. So I am recommending it to all – watch the show. And read the book. Together, they defy the common wisdom that modern entertainment has nothing to offer us. Indeed, they give us a new perspective not only on the show, but on our own lives. Pretty impressive for an hour a week.
“The basic desire to feel okay is deeply human, but if Don Draper can take this generic human longing and create a desire for a particular product, are we genuinely free?”
– Kevin Guilfoy, “Capitalism and Freedom in the Affluent Society”