Mad Men 2.0

By Sirota, David | In These Times, October 2009 | Go to article overview

Mad Men 2.0


Sirota, David, In These Times


America is experiencing a PR revolution that promotes outraged denial over fact-based persuasion

It's difficult to know exactly why AMC s Mad Men has become such a hit, but it is a safe bet that its popularity is not merely a product of the television show's smooth writing, superb acting and retro-cool clothing. What has taken the program from Law & Order-watchable to Sopranos-style phenomenal is its exploration of advertising and public relations- the psychological manipulations that we're immersed in but rarely talk about.

In Mad Mens early 1960s, the dark art of selling and spinning were being perfected and modernized. Before television, advertising was largely based on the repetition of anodyne fact- the theory being that if you simply hard-sell a products virtues, ingrethents and eifects, that product will eventually fly off the shelves. In the television age, as Americans became more media literate and thus cynical, vendors began using ad firms to sophisticate their pitches with subtlety and insinuation. Getting to watch that mercurial process via Sterling Cooper (the fictional ad agency in the show) is a voyeur's delight - like being allowed to watch David Copperfield construct his elaborate magic tricks.

Key to Mad Men's formula is the assumption that viewers realize most media products have become, to one degree or another, propaganda. We get that gatekeepers with subjective interests- whether governments or corporations - will shape the information they provide so as to promote or protect those interests. Free television shows are accompanied by hypnotic advertisements, news broadcasts don't typically attack their sponsors and governments omit official information that might damage the administration in power. A half-century into the information revolution, we grasp how all of those subjectivities conspire to influence us.

Not surprisingly, that mass psychological maturation is once again inspiring those with a vested interest in controlling information to develop new techniques. Thus, even as Mad Men grabs authence share with its potent retrospective on the original revolution in contemporary advertising, the business of information packaging is now experiencing a second revolution - a conversion to Mad Men 2.0. And this time, that business is following the worst lessons from its past.

Don Draper to Don Rumsfeld

In the last decade, America has witnessed the evolution of the head-pounding hard sell and brain-massaging soft pitch into what can be called "outraged denial." Its key component is replacing spin - the artful highlighting of partial truths - with a total rejection of all facts.

This PR device is based on the theory that in a post- Watergate, post-Monicagate world, the public will view spinned parsings as admissions of guilt, yet accept enraged refutations as ineluctably true. Through decades of commercials, congressional testimony and political punditry, we've been taught to believe that institutions and individuals may evade and prevaricate, but they will never defend or promote themselves with brazen, upis-down fabrications because they know such lies can be easily exposed.

Of course, this expectation of minimal honesty is precisely why we're moving from the Don Draper Zeitgeist to the Don Rumsfeld paradigm- that is, from finesse to outraged denial.

When a company's safety standards or earnings reports are criticized, the corporate parent today inevitably denies all charges with gusto, knowing we have trouble believing an angry denial isn't at least somewhat true. When a political figure is asked about sex with an intern or prior knowledge of a terrorist threat, he doesn't acknowledge any of the verifiable factshe angrily rejects the entire line of questioning as irresponsible conspiracy theory, knowing that we don't want to believe he could lie so brazenly.

Certainly, the Internet explosion and the proliferation of news outlets have made uncovering untruths easy. …

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