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The Real Reason Why You Love Don Draper, According To Science

04/14/2015 08:48 am ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015

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What will become of Don Draper? As the final season of “Mad Men” continues, the debate surrounding our crestfallen hero’s fate grows more tense, and contentious, with each episode.

Will Don get a happy ending via self-acceptance? Or will he fizzle out, along with all that he represents: the self-made man made real and successful by representing, and deeply identifying with, the brands he touts? Throughout the show, he’s been a divisive character, lauded by some for his frankness, but disparaged by others for his selfish behavior. Still, Don drives the conversation around the show. Is it merely his bad boy charm that we find alluring -- or is it something more?

In Season 7's Part 1 finale, his ex-wife Betty said she was “starting to think of him as an old, bad boyfriend. Someone a teenage anthropologist would marry.” Senior partner Jim Cutler was no more forgiving: In his attempts to fire Don, he called him “a bully,” “a drunk” and “a football player in a suit.” Still, he managed to evade both personal and professional failures once again, and audiences seemed pleased.

If you’re among those rooting for Draper -- charmed by his crisp ties and blunt manner in spite of his predictable prickishness -- your allegiance may not represent a warped masochistic tendency. It may, in fact, be rooted in brain science, and the psychology of what we determine to be “cool.”

In Cool: How the Brain’s Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our World, authors Steven Quartz and Anette Asp discuss how our personal values and identities are tied up in our consumption habits. This, they claim, isn’t as shallow as it sounds. To counter the prevailing notion that consumption occurs when advertisers instill false wants, the authors suggest instead that emulating high-status individuals is instinctual. Owning socially valuable products stimulates our Behavioral Activation System, which is responsible for sensations like elation. The book cites a plethora of studies showing how brands help us connect in the same way socializing does, thereby making it a sufficient replacement for other modes of identity-making. Showing off our connection with certain products provides a quick hit of the social value-amping good feelings we get when we're praised by loved ones, complimented for our artistic tastes, praised for our bravery, or admired for our intelligence. This explains why Don, while shallow, is admired -- even envied.

Quartz and Asp write off Rousseau's concept of the "Noble Savage" -- the poor citizen whose lack of aspirations leads to fulfillment -- suggesting that because our instincts guide us towards acquisition-induced happiness, consumption is a more honest pursuit. To suggest that the biological reward of consumption makes it as valuable as deeper, more challenging forms of self-expression is a radical and limiting belief. But, it may explain why we default to admiring shameless brand trumpeters like Don when we’re feeling lazy.

Without much of a personal identity of his own -- he actively severed ties with anyone related to his tumultuous upbringing -- Don seems to truly live the messages he sells in meetings, making his pitches deeply emotive and effective. This may be precisely why viewers care about him, in spite of his nihilistic tendencies. Not only does he understand the easiest way to move people; Don himself is like a walking ad, evoking our most basic desires for status and connection.

We first witness the convergence of Don’s private self and his ability to sell products in Season 1, when he presents his idea for a campaign to sell Kodak’s “The Wheel,” a then-new piece of technology that projects photo slides. Don rejects the temptation to highlight the newness of the product, instead playing on pathos. “This device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine,” he says. “It goes backwards. Forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It lets us travel, around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”

Harry Crane rushes out of the room in tears, and former head of account services Duck Phillips quips to the future clients: “Good luck at your next meeting.” It’s an obvious sell. The reason, according to Don, is that the pitch taps into nostalgia. He says, “The public can be engaged on a level beyond flash. They have a sentimental bond with the product: [...] nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent. In Greek, nostalgia literally means ‘the main from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.”

This may sound like a mushy means of giving advertisers too much credit -- doesn't sex sell, too? -- but Quartz and Asp cite recent research that backs up the emotional bond we form with brands. In a 2004 study conducted at Baylor College, participants were asked to take the famous Pepsi Challenge while under a brain scanner. It was discovered that the subjects’ brand loyalty was not linked to taste preferences; they may claim to prefer Coke but actually prefer Pepsi. When the subjects knew they were drinking the beverage they claimed to prefer, the areas of their brain connected with memory and emotion lit up, proving what Don Draper knew all along: nostalgia sells.

He wields this knowledge to achieve status, and that status seems to comprise his entire identity. Jim Cutler notes this in last year's half-season finale, when he says he's been "unimpressed" with Don, who he depicts as hollow: "The most eloquent I've ever heard you is when you were blubbering like a little girl about your impoverished childhood."

Connecting with Don, then, is like connecting with a brand: his entire character plays on our deepest desires to climb the social ladder. But the sort of “cool” that he exemplifies -- rich, powerful, and therefore free to act as he pleases -- is no longer the only means of forming the sort of easily constructed identity we create when we define ourselves by the products we associate with.

In the late '50s -- the era captured in the early seasons of the show -- a counter-culture surfaced. Jack Kerouac, James Dean, Thelonious Monk, and others who embody what author Peter Gay refers to as “the lure of heresy,” begin to shake up the notion of a single, desirable social status. The seemingly inexorable link between status and luxury was problematic for those who tried to emulate the trends of the wealthy -- it created what Quartz and Asp call "a zero-sum game," because once trends were adopted widely, those in power would scrap them. To break the cycle, rebelling against the norm was necessary.

Don dismisses the bohemian lifestyle of Greenwich Village proto-hippies in a definitive scene during the show's first season. At a party that's been busted by the cops, he accuses his lover’s friend of constructing his apparently rebellious lifestyle by, “buying some Tokaj wine and leaning up against a wall in Grand Central pretending [to be] a vagrant." The beatnik retorts, “Look at you. Satisfied. Dreaming up jingles for soap flakes and spot remover. Telling yourself you're free […] you make the lie. You invent want.”

Don scoffs, “I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent,” and nods to the police on his way out the door. Here, his objectively valued status is clear.

What Quartz and Asp refer to as “oppositional status” rose steadily, arguably climaxing with the Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco. According to the authors' logic, viewing this rebellion as a deeper alternative to Don and his consumerism would be reductive. It wasn’t long before counterculture was commodified, eventually leading revolutionaries such as Allen Ginsberg to actively promote less-bourgeois brands such as The Gap -- for better or for worse. The lifestyle eschewed by Don infiltrated his domain: the ad world. Once myriad options for desirable social status arose, where did that leave our glistening, monolithic ideal of success?

Perhaps Matthew Weiner’s finale will let us know, but if the title of Season 7's Part 2 premiere is any indicator, it just might be the end of an era.

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