Sunday, August 15, 2010

Mad Men: Finally, A Show About Business

By Robert Blumen

[Warning: spoilers but you have nothing to worry about if you are current through the end of season 3.]

I have been enjoying the cable TV series Mad Men, now in its fourth season on the AMC network. New York, the 1960′s, and the fictitious Manhattan ad agency of Sterling Cooper provide the setting of the series. The firm’s talented creative director Don Draper, brilliantly depicted by John Hamm, leads a talented ensemble cast. Smart dialogue, great acting, and loyal attention to the design of the era make this show a difficult habit to break.

[While I entirely agree] with Jeff Tucker, who has written that in its depiction of social customs and mores lies an endorsement of the subsequent expansion of the nanny state, I believe that there is another dimension to the show that has not been much discussed: the show is in the minority of products from the entertainment industry that take business seriously.

Most movies which depict business executives in one of two ways: either they motivated entirely by pure malevolence toward humanity in general; or, they are driven by an over-arching greed that transcends any other motives.

As Alex Tabarrok writes in the Wall Street Journal,

In the movies, capitalists are almost invariably cast as villains. Has someone been murdered? Are the residents of a small town dying of cancer? Is an environment being despoiled? Look no further than the CEO of some large corporation. Quick, name as many movies as you can that feature capitalists as heroes. “Batman Forever” and “Iron Man” do not count. There are a few (“The Edge,” “You’ve Got Mail”), but it’s a short list. Now name as many movies as you can that feature mass-murdering corporations and corporate villains? That one is easy: “The Fugitive,” “Syriana,” “Mission Impossible II,” “Erin Brockovich,” “The China Syndrome” and “Avatar,” to name only a few.
Even when a corporation is not the primary villain, Hollywood lets its dislike of commerce be known.
The show is nearly alone in looking at the reality of business as a complex and challenging undertaking of imperfect, but not malevolent human beings. The show is clearly not anti-business in the way that Tabarrok illustrates. The advertising industry is one of the prime targets of anti-market ideology. The series does not condemn advertising. Instead it takes a respectful and interested stance toward the industry and the people in it. That is in itself a political statement.

The story lines bounce back and forth between the office and the private lives of the characters. On the business side, several economic themes emerge – consumer preference, competition, constant change, innovation, skill, and the division of labor.

As Tucker noted, the 60′s itself is one of the main characters in the show. The camera often lingers over a piece of furniture, a clock, a carpet, a car, a meal, or a costume. Typewriters are ubiquitous. The arrival of a photocopier at the firm causes considerable consternation: where to put it? What will clients think when they see it? After laughing at products that were new in the 60′s but now strike us as outmoded, I realized that the the innovation in production and constant change in consumer preference is a theme in the show. While we are not so far removed from that era, the range of products we have available today has changed considerably.

Consumer preference is the driving force behind advertising. Don Draper frequently is shown meeting with clients to discuss the needs of their business. The executives discuss their success or failure in terms of their own customers.

Read the rest here. [Thanks to Nick]

Here's Jeff Tucker's interesting and opposing take. [Thanks to Rex] Best Tucker lines:

Every high-profile federal intervention is given a subtle endorsement because we are shown in high relief the sheer awfulness of the world before Leviathan took over our homes, businesses, and public and private lives in every respect. Without them, we would surely be blow-drying our hair in the tub.

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