The history and arc of the advertising industry isn’t widely known. Even the many advertising students I’ve taught didn’t seem to have much interest in the past. And while the AMC drama “Mad Men” was loosely aligned with some real events in the industry, it was of course heavier on drama than history. So to remedy this, The Smithsonian Channel is debuting a multi-part series called The Real Mad Men of Advertising.
It’s a four-part show, with an hour-long episode dedicated to the industry’s progression through the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies and Eighties.
Loaded with interviews of academics, along with old images and long-forgotten commercials, the series begins with the post-World War II mentality in America. We learn why consumerism fueled by mass media advertising began to dominate our world. The series traces the early versions of native advertising in shows like “Texaco Star Theater,” the creative revolution of the Sixties, then the regulatory changes of the Seventies, and the consumer excesses and big consolidation moves of the Eighties. We also see the changes over time in how minorities, women, and youth are portrayed in ads.
The good and bad of the “The Real Mad Men of Advertising” are both the same: With John Slattery (Roger Sterling) as a narrator, interviews with Matt Weiner, and clips from the drama series, there’s a bit too much leaning on the fictional show for my taste. But fans of “Mad Men” will love how the cultural context presented here adds depth to the understanding of the drama series.
For this copywriter, I enjoyed the interviews with advertising legends like Jane Maas, Lee Clow, Bill Backer, and a few others. I would’ve loved to see more of the folks who were actually there on the inside as the industry changed. Still, the series is quite enjoyable.
Advertising mirrors our society and culture — or an idealized, aspirational version of it. And there are plenty of lessons in advertising’s past we can use to shape the future. Taking a look back, “The Real Mad Men of Advertising” serves as a great overview of an industry that changed and shaped America, for better or worse.
The “Real Mad Men of Advertising” premieres January 8 on The Smithsonian Channel. Thanks to The Smithsonian Channel and Roslan & Campion PR for giving me preview access to the shows.