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.