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A Boomer's Perspective On Mad Men: My, How Things Have Changed!

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As a Baby Boomer and former ad agency head, I will be spending this Mad Men season commenting on how the show's themes would have played out differently had they occurred 20 years later, in 1986, when I was running my firm.

Let me start with the centerpiece of this week's show: Don Draper's surprise 40th birthday party in his upscale, au courant Manhattan apartment circa 1966. In both periods, staff members would have been self-conscious about congregating in the boss's home rather than in their place of work -- say, in the big conference room at the agency.

Beyond that, the '86 version of Don Draper's party would feel quite different. First, we would need to dim the lights to create more of an "Area" club feeling ("Area" was the hot 1986 NYC club, at 157 Hudson Street). Megan would have sprung for a light show, to encourage the full-out dancing popular at that time, and everyone would have shared concern that the cops might arrive at any moment to shut things down. Long-stemmed Coronas would replace the familiar '60s Martini glasses. And guests would be smoking joints and running the occasional line of cocaine, often in plain sight. In a much darker apartment, with the furniture pushed to the side, Megan would have updated her cabaret act by impersonating Madonna singing "Live To Tell."

Instead of Don taking Megan to task for deciding on her own to ring in his 40th birthday so publicly, the '80s version of this scene would have played out far differently. As it is, Megan accepts Don's criticism, though somewhat reluctantly, suggesting that she does not consider herself to be Don's play toy, and, foreshadowing the coming season, that her role in their relationship may turn out to be more than Don bargained for. In the '86 version, Megan would have come back at Don full throttle, in a rip-roaring fight the next morning. She wouldn't have paraded around in her lingerie as a prelude to sex. Nor would she have willingly shown him her cleavage that first morning back at the office. Well before Monday morning, we'd watch her hurl empty Coronas at the living room wall to express her contempt for Don's lack of appreciation.

Similarly, Peggy Olsen would never have allowed Don to get away with undermining her "Dancing Beans" Heinz campaign. Had Don Draper pulled such a stunt in 1986, the Peggy Olsen of that day would have followed him into his office, gotten up into his face and launched into a "how dare you" soliloquy that Don would not soon forget, reminiscent of his new wife's outrage of the day before.

By 1986, the era of white male dominance in advertising had ended. Women now filled all levels of media buying and planning, account management, and creative positions at most firms. (They were still largely white women, though by the mid 80's the African-American consumer had become a major purchaser of certain mainstream products, and manufacturers of athletic shoes, candy bars, and drinks like Snapple began demanding their front-tier agencies hire more minorities into copywriter slots to provide much-needed minority marketing perspective.) The Peggy Olsens of my day clearly had a far greater say in how things worked. And while office romances still frequently took root, new considerations, such as sexual harassment charges, pushed much of it deep underground and made initiating affairs far more problematic than in Draper and Sterling's era.

On the other hand, we have the universal and timeless dynamic between Peter Campbell and Roger Sterling. Another poignant thread in Sunday night's show was the ongoing struggle between Campbell and Sterling, as Campbell, the young, able junior partner, reels in new business to make up for the loss the firm suffered when Lucky Strike, Sterling's huge cigarette account and the proverbial "club" he had wielded around the agency, took a hike.

Campbell's play to enhance his own position and financial gain leaves Sterling, who has yet to replace the account, feeling both threatened and marginalized as he seeks to hold onto his high salary and status without the new business needed to justify it. The only difference another 20 years might have made was in the extent of Campbell's grasp. In '86, he might have sought a company car and a new business merit bonus to go along with Sterling's high-profile office. Sterling would probably also have had to acquiesce to Campbell's demands, because new business acquisition gave you the keys to the palace.

Finally, let's consider the show's depiction of Sally Draper. After growing up sidelined under the domestic regimes of the Don and Betty Drapers of our day, Baby Boomers decided to place children front and center. We would never tell our kids, as our parents often told us, that we were to be "seen and not heard." Instead, we made our kids our everything. (Yes, you could say we probably let the pendulum swing a bit too far, in the opposite direction.)

As a consequence, little Sally Draper would never have needed to knock mistakenly on dad's door in order to get him out of bed to make breakfast. Instead, well before the crack of dawn, '80s Don Draper would have been at her bedside, nudging her awake so that she could get ready for soccer practice while he threw a quick meal together for her and her siblings. Megan would never have "slept in" either. While Don was rousting Sally, she would have been waking her brothers, getting them dressed and then packing snacks for the day. Newlywed or not, she probably would have double-teamed with Don, to eliminate scheduling conflicts by driving boys to their Saturday morning gymnastics sessions. My, how things have changed!