Magazine article The Spectator

Mad Men Are Taking over the World. and That's No Bad Thing

Magazine article The Spectator

Mad Men Are Taking over the World. and That's No Bad Thing

Article excerpt

As an adman myself, I am always delighted when I see one of my colleagues off to work in No. 10, or to advise a political party -- even though I'm a little worried that, after working with Sir Martin Sorrell for a few years, David Muir may find it hard to cope with Gordon Brown's relatively chilled management style and his breezy, hands-off approach to delegation.

I'm also happy to see the arrival in No. 10 of Stephen Carter, and to see that PR Week has somehow become a Downing Street journal of record. Regardless of my personal politics, I would like to see far more marketing thinking close to the seat of power -- an opinion you'll find brilliantly argued in John Quelch and Katherine Jocz's superb new book Greater Good -- How Good Marketing makes for Better Democracy.

My only fear about all this? Politicians seem all too liable to misuse the talents of people from marketing or PR -- so while they may be happy to employ marketers to burnish their personal images, to identify key groups of swing voters or to come up with an eye-catching initiative in response to a front cover on the Daily Mail, it never seems to occur to them that marketing thinking can also be useful in solving some of the more important challenges facing a government or a society.

Even worse is when the image-making and policy-making become confused or conflated -- so that government develops policy with one ear always on public opinion, causing government activity to come in successive and unconnected waves and destroying any impression of sincerity.

So let's just hope these undoubtedly immense talents can bring their influence to bear on bigger questions than just re-election or poll-watching -- and to ask how many contemporary social problems could be better solved by persuasion than by legislation or vast expenditure on infrastructure.

Why is it that it is considered unacceptable for admen to address these problems -- while lawyers and consultants are given a free rein?

For a historical answer, try BBC4 (Sundays, 10 p. m. ) and the imported American series Mad Men. It is set on Madison Avenue in 1960 and written by Matthew Weiner, a former writer and producer of The Sopranos.

Informally modelled on the real-life agency Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn (a name described by one wag as 'the sound made by a heavy trunk falling down a flight of stairs'), the fictional Sterling Cooper agency provides much of the time-warp humour of Life on Mars -- the unthinking sexist remarks, prodigious boozing, smoking and lechery being authentic and funny at the same time.

It is also in this era that we first encounter the adman as a staple character in film; sometimes likeable (Mr Blandings Builds his Dream House; North by Northwest) and sometimes not (the account man is perhaps the least sympathetic of the 12 Angry Men).

Suave as the adman of this time seems, he was in fact under attack -- by the million or so people who had read (or at least bought) Vance Packard's 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders, a bestseller which, among other things, created widespread fear over the issue of subliminal advertising. (This subconscious technique was for decades thought to be highly effective based on a one-off experiment in a cinema whose results were later found to be fake. ) Even if the deviousness was nothing like that claimed by Packard, postwar marketing could be a cunning and cynical business.

White-coated doctors plugged the healthgiving properties of cigarettes; cars were equipped with larger fins or vast, mastoid bumper overriders despite the lethal effect these had on hapless pedestrians; burger chains unable to afford the cost of making their beef patties larger simply made the buns smaller -- a ploy which seemed to have an identical effect on sales. My employer's founder, David Ogilvy, widely seen as among the most principled of agency heads, once experimented with the use of hypnotism in television advertisements. …

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