07/22/2010 06:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mad Men , Big Business

The Sixties are back. On television, that is. This Sunday, when Mad Men returns on AMC, it will be late November, 1964. And as the show's producers have hinted, the times they will be a' changing.

The show has earned its popularity by faithfully reproducing the artifacts of the era and by effectively using events of the time--the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy assassination -- as backdrop. Still, we're unlikely to see the complexity of the Great Society era unfold on our TV screens over the next few months. Mad Men has never pretended to teach history; rather, what it does seem to want to teach us about is advertising history. The first season posed trivia questions about the evolution of the ad industry during commercial breaks, as if the opportunity to learn something about where ads come from might prevent us from muting or fast forwarding through them through them. (In subsequent seasons, these quizzes became blatant tie-ins for the show's sponsors). And milestones in advertising history have also inspired important plotlines: the creative revolution sparked by William Bernbach's "Think Small" Volkswagen campaign, for example, and in last season's denouement, a merger and buyout plot that accurately reflects shakeups in the ad industry in 1963.

But Mad Men's frequently praised commitment to authenticity only makes its few errors more noticeable. Perhaps the most glaring, to historians of the advertising industry, comes the moment in season two, set in 1962, when someone remarks that the Batten, Barton, Durstine, and Osborne Agency (BBDO) has just hired a "colored kid." At first, this might seem like an overly generous anachronism -- in 2006, it took a massive investigation by the New York City Commission on Human Rights to get agencies to diversify their creative staff along racial and ethnic lines. But, in fact, the anachronism goes the other way. BBDO hired its first black account executive in 1952, a man named Clarence Holte, who remained at the agency for 20 years run ran what the agency euphemistically referred to as its "Specialty Marketing Department."

So far we have yet to see any black account executives on Mad Men, which is too bad, as Holte's example has much to teach us about the complex ways that big business, advertising and civic ideals were intertwined in the decades following World War II. In 1955, for example, Holte reached out to the NAACP and other organizations to promote a DuPont-sponsored TV show about black diplomat Ralph Bunche. Black and white viewers responded enthusiastically, hailing DuPont as a civil rights champion protesting the not-guilty verdict in the recent Emmett Till murder trial. This association with civil rights was an ideal outcome for DuPont's advertising department, which saw its mission as fighting "irrational prejudice" against big business, a disease of the public mind it compared to racism. There was another benefit too: The show deflected attention from DuPont's Southern manufacturing operations, which took advantage of the union-busting, wage-deflating effects of Jim Crow.

Such progressive seeming ad campaigns like Holte's helped to advance and legitimize the fundamental subterfuge that now goes by the label "corporate social responsibility" -- P.R.-style advertising promoting big-business interests. Their history is an aspect of industry history that Mad Men largely neglects. But there, to borrow the show's tagline, is where the truth lies. Certainly, as we face financial and environmental disasters that directly stem from unregulated corporate power, and as recent Supreme Court decisions affirm the civil rights of corporations, it's a history that feels more pressing, closer to over-mortgaged home than the history of glossy lipstick and airline campaigns. It's a history we might want to learn a little more about.

Anna McCarthy is author of the book "The Citizen Machine: Governing by Television in 1950s America" out this month from The New Press.