The Real Thing

18 May

Don Draper


I want to show you an ad. It aired during one of the recent Super Bowls. It’s called “Parisian Love” because even ads need titles.

This is, without a doubt, one of the best advertisements I’ve ever seen. It’s simple, straightforward, tells a compelling story (yes, ads can tell stories), and is resonant with anybody who’s ever been in love or used Google. Basically, everyone.

Don Draper would have loved it. If, he had lived to see it, of course, and not jumped off the building at the end of the Mad Men finale. Actually, that was the second half of the prediction I made about the finale. The prediction I made three weeks ago. Ahem:

Nailed it.

Actually, when I first saw the episode – three Old Fashioneds in, mind you – I didn’t think it was saying that Don wrote that jingle. Rather, my initial reaction was, “Oh, Don became a Buddhist. Cool.” But upon rewatching it, it’s pretty plain that Matthew Weiner & Co. are implying that Don had some hand in creating one of the most celebrated ads of all time.

That final scene sees Don at a meditative retreat, sitting on top of a hill, legs crossed. The leader starts chanting “Om.” At this point, Don still looks a bit out of his element. He’s not smiling. Not yet. Then he says “Om.” Then the bell rings. Then he smiles. Then Coke.

Yes, he got that idea up on the hilltop. The question now is: what is Mad Men saying about this? There are generally two sides to this debate. (Yeah, the episode is less than a day old and we’re already having debates.) One states that all Don learned from his experiences in Big Sur was promptly recycled into shilling for Coke. The other side – to which I counted myself briefly – contended that it wasn’t certain that Don actually wrote the jingle. To have him simply go back to McCann Erickson and work for Coke would mean that Don learned nothing, that while all the other characters actually got – can you believe it?!? – happy endings (well except for poor Betty), Don is the same plastic mad men as always. To end Don’s journey in such a cynical way would be as cheap as revealing that he’s D.B. Cooper or that all the people on the island in Lost were dead all along. (They weren’t, haters.)

But the more I thought about it, the more I came back to that smile, and realized that there’s another reading of the ending. Like Camus’ Sisyphus, Don is happiest at work. Not only is he happiest at work, but he’s damned good at his job. This echoes what Stan says earlier in the episode when Peggy asks him if he likes it at McCann Erickson. “I like being good at my job.” Through seven seasons of Mad Men we sometimes forget that it’s a workplace show, and that what drives many of the characters are their jobs. Joan starts her own company. Peggy moved from lowly secretary to someone Pete thinks will someday be a creative director. Even Pete – scummy, smarmy Pete – is able to salvage what truly means to him – his family – because of a new job.

And Don is a creative genius. In another life he may have been one of the great post-war novelists. Instead he was discovered by Roger Sterling and made himself into one of the best ad men around.

And the question that I ask is: what’s so wrong with this?

Advertising is used to sell stuff. It is a tool of consumerism and capitalism. But that does not mean it’s inherently an evil or pernicious calling. Over the past three or four decades advertising has grown in stature. Many people watch the Super Bowl only for the ads. It is undeniable that there is a certain artistry in great advertisement, and it’s because of people like Don Draper that this is the case.

The problem with most people’s thinking about Mad Men is that they see it only as one thing or another. It is not simply a cynical exploration of consumerism. True, in the very first episode Don comes up with a milquetoast slogan for cigarettes: “They’re toasted.” But later he refuses to work for tobacco companies altogether. And in his greatest pitch, he sells Kodak on the Carousel, reinventing the wheel, this one filled with nostalgia, a time machine that lets you go back and forth in your life. Rewatch that scene.

It is highly emotional, so much so that even a revolting asshole like Harry Crane is moved to tears.

That’s where the major misinterpretation of Mad Men comes in to play. Advertising may be – at bottom – a way to sell a product. But that doesn’t mean that is all it has to be. Great ads tap into something – call it a cultural zeitgeist if you must – nostalgia, patriotism, romanticism, hope. Commercials for pick-up trucks all have a rough Sam Elliot-esque voiceover, bald eagles, the red white and blue. United Airlines showers us with Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue’s sweep promising to take us away somewhere, anywhere. And what does this ad say?

Why does this resonate so much? It’s not just a clever play on pop culture; rather it utilizes a pop culture touchstone and taps into Generation X’s own nostalgia for it. 

Ads may not be great art, but they can be minor art, and they can move us, and in some small ways change us, if only for a second or two.

When Don hears Leonard’s story, the story of an invisible man who may be loved but is unable to recognize this love, Don sees something of himself in this man. He does all he can do, which is give him a silent hug. Don has always been a taker, even when he thinks he’s a giver. When he hears Betty is dying he vows to come home to take care of the kids. But even this seemingly selfish act is one that centers around him, not his family, and not what is best for them. Only with a stranger – with Leonard, a schlubby office drone – is he able to find a way to give back.

One could view the “Buy the World a Coke” ad as a perfect piece of canned corporate cynicism. (If I were alive in 1971 I probably would have, because I’m mean that way, and I probably would have hated 1971.) It repurposes and repackages the counterculture movement into selling sugar water. But stop and read the lyrics:

I’d like to buy the world a home
And furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees
And snow white turtle doves
I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I’d like to buy the world a Coke
And keep it company
It’s the real thing.

Read what the real McCann Erickson ad exec said about the ad:

In that moment [I] saw a bottle of Coke in a whole new light… [I] began to see a bottle of Coca-Cola as more than a drink that refreshed a hundred million people a day in almost every corner of the globe. So [I] began to see the familiar words, ‘Let’s have a Coke,’ as more than an invitation to pause for refreshment. They were actually a subtle way of saying, ‘Let’s keep each other company for a little while.’ And [I] knew they were being said all over the world as [I] sat there in Ireland. So that was the basic idea: to see Coke not as it was originally designed to be — a liquid refresher — but as a tiny bit of commonality between all peoples, a universally liked formula that would help to keep them company for a few minutes.

One can easily say that this is a delusional concept. Coke is just a product.

But it isn’t. Coke is an icon. It’s a piece of Americana. Even the most cynical, hardened individuals like Coke. Because it’s Coke. And it tastes good. 

Everyone hoped Don would leave McCann Erickson for good, that he would go back to being Dick Whitman forever, that he would finally find peace. But peace for Don, true honest-to-goodness happiness for him is making ads. If we are thrilled by Joan and Peggy’s career trajectories, why can’t we also be happy for Don that he gets to do what he loves? So what if a Coke jingle isn’t the Great American Novel. Neither is a blog post, or a tweet, or a Facebook status. But in their small ways they can mean something.

I’d like to think that the new and improved Don Draper has learned that he is loved, and that it doesn’t matter if that love exists despite all the terrible things he’s done. That has always been his problem: he takes because he can’t accept that others might give to him unconditionally. He does not believe himself to be a good person and deserving of love. This new man will hopefully be able to give a bit more, and if all he gives is a Coke to the world, that’s fine by me. Sometimes we need one.

(Editor’s note: I know I haven’t been blogging in a while. No, I was not pulling a Don Draper, unless it’s bizarre Don Draper who is writing the Great American Novel. I hope to be back to blogging semi-regularly over the next few weeks.)

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