As I have spent the past few weeks steeped in classical rhetoric – in reading through the history of Western ways of knowing, communicating, and essentially creating the cosmos – I have made time for one selfish pleasure: underdog writer, Paul Weiner’s AMC hit, Mad Men. This act – the watching of television actors perform the history of American commercial advertising – feels a bit Homeric rather than Aristotelian, but it has become my weekly meditation on the places where ancient Greek epistemologies manifest, mutate, influence the popular, consumer culture. On one hand, the American ad man and his audiences have, in some ways, engaged in the profound perpetuation of the Western tradition – understanding the world as a universal, singular Truth or reality that can be sold or used to sell cars, anti-wrinkle cream, Kodak projectors. This is most often the “Truth” of the white, middle-class, American male. Yet, Mad Men’s title character, Don Draper often recognizes, in the changing cultural landscape of the American 1960’s, that advertising – rhetoric – can often create new gender and class meanings – a recognition that reflects emerging post-structural, post-modern and anti-binary ways of thinking.
Every time I revisit this famous scene from the first season of Mad Men, I think about how Wiener has constructed Don Draper in order to explore what he calls in a recent Rolling Stone article “the biggest theme in all of Western literature.” That theme is the mutability of American male identity – the myth of the self-made man. Born Dick Winters, the son of a prostitute and a poor farmer – he is the ultimate American figure, leaving combat in Korea to fake his own death and “light out for new territory” Huck style – follow that “orgiastic green light” to a newer, more affluent identity complete with the Daisy-esque romantic conquest (wealthy model wife, Betty Francis). Don Draper is the most recent in a long, poetic story of American masculinity – and this ethos is important to note. It helps to support the claim that his rhetoric, here an ad pitch for the latest Kodak home photography projector, is that of the dominant, Western voice. He is quintessentially American, distinctly Western (this is highlighted in a brilliant recent episode in which his agency Sterling, Cooper, Draper, and Price attempt to bring in Japanese client, Honda Motors and are forced to quite reluctantly “study” Eastern cultural epistemologies).
The above scene highlights this ethos and asks the careful viewer to identify and interrogate the politics of his location in relationship to selling Kodak’s product. The meaning he makes through the naming of the projection wheel – “The Carousel” – and his argument for the transcendence of nostalgia assume that the audience of American consumers can universally connect to the notion that one’s life should be recorded and later reflected upon, remembered. “The Carousel” of life is Truth to Don. But only a man so deeply invested in, shaped by, representative of an individualistic, capitalist culture can believe that the single human life is worth documenting down to the details of every kiss, every Christmas gift. And just as Aristotle audaciously defines happiness for all humans with absolutely no attention to the notion that such an abstraction might well depend on myriad and divergent cultural, class, gender, and ethnic factors – Don here too attempts to define the human life through his own photographs – images of the upper-class, white, very privileged experience. He will recognize soon that this sort of sales pitch, this sort of meaning-making that attempts to connect with the universal will become increasingly less viable as sub-cultures and marginalized groups of Americans begin to gain purchasing power and consciously react against the truths of the dominant culture
Though this scene reflects the Western understanding of the human experience as “universal,” filled with transcendent truths like “nostalgia” Plato would argue we innately understand – it also serves as an interesting (and if you’re Aristotle, infuriating) example of how pathos and appropriateness of style (To Prepon) can work to manipulate an audience. And so possibly the American ad man is the ultimate Sophist; after all – Don Draper’s Carousel ad pitch “is not a matter of ability, but of deliberate choice” to frame a product – in this case the Kodak wheel – as a means to attaining the beautiful life of the affluent (Aristotle, On Rhetoric, Book 1, Chapter 1). Advertising is rhetoric then that uses causal reasoning to perpetuate cultural truths and appeal to the emotions of the consumer. Consider the recent Ponds facial cream campaign debate of the fourth episode of the current season of Mad Men, which explores the gendered ad messages of the 1960’s and anticipates the cultural sea change that is coming. The episode outlines an ideological battle between “Old Boy” ad man, Freddy Rumsen – and his young, female supervisor, Peggy Olsen who are assigned the task of creating an ad campaign for Ponds. Freddy argues that they make the simple, tried and true argument that using Ponds will lead to gaining a husband. Single career woman Peggy rejects the truth that all women want to invest in themselves simply in order to attain male attention. Weiner, who writes each episode, is clearly commenting on the reality of gender messages of the early 1960’s. Take a look at the following ads that confirm the marriage narrative as a marketing tool:
Clearly promise of the male yes answer is the ultimate sales pitch from ad men to American women who are beginning to purchase more products like beverages, face cream, and coffee (even if it is for husband, Harvey). Each of these ads from the 1960’s are manipulative – they appeal to and essentially perpetuate the emotional insecurities of women terrified that some other woman’s “coffee” will taste better, younger, etc. But they also feel didactic – and I suspect the men who made them believed the messages were beneficial for women consumers – it is, after all important to note that, for the most part, the male and female characters Weiner creates express frequently a belief in the correctness of gender roles of the status quo.
In Mad Men, Freddy chooses to participate in this belief and its perpetuation with his sales idea for ponds. Peggy represents a disruption in the man/woman binary and a new way of understanding the role of commercial rhetoric. She is determined to use a new idea – that Ponds can a be a way to treat the self outside of the male gaze. Her idea involves a young woman confidently looking in the mirror – no man involved. Now, why do I mention all this? Because it is Don Draper – director of creative and partner in Sterling Cooper, Draper, Price and archetypal American male who must decide which ad campaign will be pitched to Ponds. And when market researcher, Miller confirms that test groups will respond more favorably to Freddy’s idea and that Don should “adopt a strategy that links Ponds cold cream to matrimony” Don’s response is surprising. “Hello 1925. I’m not going to do that.” The womanizing misogynist who seems willing to say anything to sell a product suddenly recognizes that advertising is not merely poetic – it is rhetorical – and it can change culture.
“You can’t change the truth,” Dr. Miller insists – an echo of Season 1, 1960 Don.
“How do you know that is the truth? A new idea is something they don’t know yet, so of course it’s not going to come up as an option. Put my campaign on television for a year, hold your group again and maybe it will come up,” Don retorts.
Season 4, 1965 Don seems a little less Aristotle and a great deal more Burke. It is moments in the script like this one that keep me making time for art – in a way, Mad Men exists in the blurred space where Poetics and Rhetoric overlap. And, like advertising, this space may be the epicenter of the most meaningful persuasion. After all, “actions speak louder than words” and it is “the poet [who] can produce characters by conceiving of plots in which his puppets do as well as say the sort of things listed in [Aristotle’s] topics” (Burke, Rhetoric and Poetics, 297). The poet may be the ultimate rhetorician. I certainly think Matthew Weiner may help to make this case.