Monday, March 7, 2011

Mad Men Mondays: The American Dream, Then and Now

Pour a glass of tomato juice or a mai tai, crack open the Utz potato chips and Ritz crackers, and welcome to my Mad Men Mondays discussion series. You do not need to watch the AMC show, about an advertising firm in New York City in the 1960s, to weigh in. This will be more about the themes of the show.

First topic - defining and pursuing the American dream over the years.

On a season one dvd extra, Chris Wall, Creative Director of Ogilvy & Mather, observed this:

"The whole notion of the American dream is really about moving from an industrial society to a leisure society where people went from kids working in factories and the Depression to postwar where you had lots and lots of affluence in the middle class.

The American dream was product. It's not like everyone could go to philosophy school. It was 'I could have a stereo. I could have a color tv.'"

On a Mad Men season three episode, ad man Pete Campbell told an elevator operator the American dream was to have a house, a car, and a television.

Flash-forward to 2011. Having lived in suburban New Jersey my entire life (born in 1975), it seems now that list today is a house (which you'll be convinced to renovate since marketers will tell you your interior is "dated"), two large, fuel-inefficient cars, multiple televisions and gadgets (with monthly service plans for parents and for kids) that you'll tire of and replace, and more.

Leisure time? In our gadget-always with you world, those lines are diminishing, and you'll be working to buy more "stuff." Alexander Lee (formerly of Project Laundry list, one of my favorite grassroots groups which encourages line drying laundry) observed how we sit behind desks and earn thousands of dollars to buy appliances.

How much "leisure time" is spent at Home Depot or Target changing something about our houses? As a renter, I'm not subject to the same temptations to make "upgrades" (a debatable term) to something I don't own. In a twist of fate - those dated interiors people despised are now becoming more popular because of Mad Men (how I drool over the Draper home over any gaudy McMansion any "real" (fake?) housewife is living in). Truth be told, I used to view a lot about my parents' home as dated - but now look at some rooms in a new light thinking, "How very Mad Men!"

Wages are stagnant and employers are getting more out of fewer workers (the former has the upperhand). To worsen matters, we've been conditioned into feeling entitled to more, and "needs" and "wants" aren't distinguishable. At least that's what Cablevision, Verizon, Best Buy, and the like want you to think.

As Professor Albert Lieberman, Executive Director, EMT Program, NYU Stern School of Business, said in the Mad Men season 1 extra, "Part of what I would call advertising environment is set up to make you believe that there's always more, there's always better. And if you can afford it, you should have it."

Can we afford it? Visa and Mastercard say yes. The average American family has no fewer than 13 credit cards, and household debt skyrocketed from $680 billion in 1974 to $14 trillion in 2008, according to "How to Restore the American Dream" in Time. Even if you can "afford it" at the time, who knows what card life's deck will hand you? Job loss, being out of work due to illness, expenses (like a costly car or household repair) are all unforeseeable factors we should save for. Another favorite four letter word I'm adding to my ever-growing list: Save. It's a more empowering feeling than a fleeting satisfaction from an object.

We expect governments to reduce waste - but where does that rule apply to ourselves? Has the American dream - as defined by consumerism - spiraled out of control, our wallets worse for wear? All the while, we're dreaming about our next furniture purchase or how our lives will exponentially improve once those new kitchen counters are installed. This isn't my American dream.

There was a line on Mad Men where someone asked how other people lived, and the reply was they're not as bored as us, they don't have as many things. Don't Betty and Don Draper seem the most dissatisfied, despite the dream house? Who has instilled this sense of boredom and dissatisfaction in our minds? Is it the same force that causes us to sit on the couch watching all of those housewives show. Marketers?

Reflect, aloud or silently, on your own path amid all this, fellow American dream finders.

Next week, I'll be discussing what drew me to the show: fashion.


  1. Ooh, I love Mad Men...I'm excited for this series as the show's themes are well worth examining.

    Pete Campbell's line about the American Dream really struck me as well. It seemed so, well, simplistic in light of what's considered the American Dream these days. Honestly, I'm a little afraid of what will be considered the American Dream in another 50 years. I find it pretty obvious that our addiction to stuff can't be allowed to continue in this vein unchecked, but at the same time, I don't see our society at large giving up rampant consumerism.

    Thank you for the food for thought! I'm looking forward to the next installment in the series.

  2. I don't have cable and have yet to watch this show, despite everyone's raves (is it available on hulu or Netflix?). But it seems to me the American dream became a fixture around the time that suburbs were created. I've often found that a collective notion of "the American Dream" often is contrived as some result of marketing genius.

    When I think of the American Dream, I think simply of having a better life, whatever that might mean to you. For me, it has shifted over the years. I got wrapped up in LA's Vapid Life with Shiny Crap for awhile, so I wanted a huge beach front house filled with expensive art. Now that I have returned to self, that just seems silly to me.

    However, I still want to own a modest home with a fat yard or some land, which is a decidedly American thing. Most of the world rents. I wonder how much of my want of home ownership is a genuine longing and how much of it is simply an internalized command from the Powers that Be?

  3. Mad Men has three seasons out on DVD (I watched them via library loan), and season four (which I haven't seen yet) is due March 29 on DVD.

    To avoid plot spoilers, let's just say there are A LOT of extramarital affairs. Most of the affairs are a lot like the mass consumerism we so partake in – they are mindless, involve a new, exciting 'next best thing' (which the person almost always tires of or finds no use for), and often occur simply because the opportunity (or in consumerism, 'thing') is readily there for the taking. Much like a person having an affair with no conscience, the consumer is trained not to think about the underpaid worker who may suffer for their low cost goods, the animal deprived of natural life for the cheapest meat, the impact on the planet's resources. It's ingrained if we choose not to think about it, it's somehow okay.

    From the moment we take our first breath to our last, we're being marketed to. I think of the new Disney Baby venture offering mothers free Onesies in the maternity ward.

    Ever get a cold call from a telemarketer for a cemetery plot? I have.

    We all feed into it (myself included) on some level, but to what extent? And as Cate says, what will it look like in 50 years? Can your wallets, spirits, and planet take anymore?

  4. 'observed how we sit behind desks and earn thousands of dollars to buy appliances'
    Too horribly true..
    I am a bif fan of MM, maybe because it does so well reflect our current vapid culture..?
    My 'American dream' has been the chance to pursue whatever creative obsession captured me - more about doing than owning.
    I owned for a bit much against my will and I didn't like it a bit.
    Too many strings attached that take over your life and your choices.
    Thank you for such a thought-provoking post!

  5. It’s amazing the amount of time we spend acquiring things only to donate or pass them on. Cate at Liberal Simplicity wrote a great post related to this:

    I am guilty of this (I try and acquire as much as I can secondhand to reduce my impact, but still, it's time spent). I feel totally overwhelmed by my possessions at times. At the same time, I take great delight in many of them. Drinking Earl Grey tea out a sky blue tea pot, my cheerful yellow daisy plates, a pretty cotton dress for the spring – these all thrifted, all things that were "wants" more than "needs." With my bank account in the black, I allow myself some things, but only after a good dose goes into retirement and personal savings, and I take ownership of bad spending habits in the past (and present).

    Thanks for chiming in! "Creating" – what a wonderful pursuit. I think of creating art (in any form....painted, dramatic, written, sonic, etc.), even creating a meal – as stimulating endeavors to pursue.

  6. Thank you for linking my post, Catherine! I think that one has really resonated with people because we're ALL guilty of shopping to fill other voids. I don't know a single person who has never done that, and I (like many others, I'm sure) have done it more than I care to remember.

    Like you, I struggle with finding a balance between appreciation for my possessions and honesty about what I actually love and need.

    Thank you for your always-thought-provoking posts!

  7. Thank you Cate, for writing it. I'm always evaluating my spending habits, including the reasons behind. Sometimes too much (I passed on a $3 DVD at a Housing Works thrift shop, but later regretted it since someone bought it). $3?! It's so hard to strike a balance.

    Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!