03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mad Men and the High Cost of Advertising

That the award winning show Mad Men chronicles the rise of contemporary advertising should be our first warning. The fantasy machine that propels the American -- and increasingly global -- consumer culture achieves this leverage simply with make believe. It imagines what we want before we want it. It packages it so persuasively as our own idea that we don't hear the small, still "no" of resistance. How, then, could we possibly say "no" to Mad Men or to its webs of illusion?

Do the creatives behind Mad Men know the hook when they see it? Are they ahead of us? So confidently are we figured out, focus grouped and dream catalogued that they lay their hand down. Actually, only their first four aces in a box full of aces, but in the very first episode! Confidence, indeed!

It's 1960 and the discussion centers around a major cigarette account. News of conclusive medical evidence on the fatal dangers of tobacco has come through -- claims of its health enhancing properties are now illegal. A definite setback for the dream merchants at Sterling Cooper, the ad agency that provides our window into this world. Their job, after all, is to sell customer wellbeing. Cancer will be a challenge even for these horses.

The 24/7 strategy session, for that is what they do, takes up the problem. The option for the reality-based community is to own up to the inevitable: some cracker jacks, with the help of a German research scientist (no doubt fresh from trying to explain German fascism), propose linking the new campaign to the consumer's death wish. Smoking cigarettes, living close to the edge, grabbing for the thrill of it in an otherwise mundane existence.

That, exclaims uber-strategist and series hero Don Draper, is preposterous -- selling suicide is suicidal! Back to the drawing board. Then Draper has a breakthrough: if Sterling Cooper can't speak to the product benefits, then neither can our competitors. This levels the playing-field.

But what then can we talk about? This is the moment of throwdown -- anything else at all, Draper blurts out. Why waste time extracting trivial upsides from a dangerous and foreboding reality, when everything dissociated from reality is at our disposal? Put crudely, small truths can never compete with big lies. If what we sell is happiness, talk about whatever people want or might want so long as it has no link to the product. No connection, no evidence, no regulatory problems.

The very title of Season 1, Episode 1, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," makes the point. And as we descend, sight-impaired, into the rabbit hole of the big lie, how will we know what the game is, the rules, the standards of falsifiability, the con? We won't. These folks are good -- they let us listen in on every campaign, except of course for the show itself.

There we will be at the mercy of continual misdirection, lies that hide bigger lies in endless (inverted) Chinese boxes, all seen from the perspective of Don Draper, Superman disguised as Clark Kent, whose savvy is itself the product of slowly unraveling Chinese boxes. There is no lie that he is not living down to his name, no pitch he does not measure by the fabrications that have worked for him, but Madison Avenue sells the future, not the past, except as a fable of unobtainable promises still to be delivered. Don't worry, they're in the mail.

As the show unfolds, we are beamed image after image of lives careening. Are these revelations, or sops, ploys, detours leading nowhere? In daylight, the 50s straight-and-narrow, grey flannel suits and happy families, at night and in the shadows dens of desire where anything goes, pick-ups, assignations, adultery and rape, gay sex and bohemian license, unwanted pregnancies and truths spoken only in corners. Clothes and masks are compulsively ripped off to reveal personas and self-delusions.

We already have a bead on these poseurs with their secret worlds, and this is just the appetizer, the come on. Like bloodhounds following the scent, we are thrown pieces of the story, until the larger pictures are recognizable: Cheever's suburban torment and Updike's soulless families, paper marriages and February-November romances, a guitar playing priest and the vulnerable parishioner, the psycho tycoon a la Howard Hughes and the sex goddess, the dispossessed scion of wealth and the burgeoning feminist, the improbable interracial couple, the closeted homosexual, and the ice queen.

We are plenty savvy of course, and soon get a fix on where these lives are headed. They are out of control, ruled by desires and repressions they do not see, and the result will not be pretty. The really astute pick up the secret gestures, the knowing wink, a light-skinned Negro trying to pass, quotes from the Port Huron Statement of S. D. S., and what else? We are way ahead!

Or rather, way behind. The reason we recognize these scenes is that we have already seen the play. They have been carefully culled from the collective imaginary of the past 40 years. We have no doubt how they will end, or how they end in People magazine. They are our own history, the cultural unraveling of contemporary America in surfeit and decadence, spiritual shutdown and addiction.

But the writers have not given us these endings -- or any endings. We are tempted, prodded (it's an ad), to think ahead of the script as if we could think ahead of our own past. Yet, in finishing their sentences, we are the ones who undo the fable of morning in America, the big lie to cover the setting sun. We know, even though no one is talking, that contemporary America is where dreams go to die -- our own secret wisdom, the despair behind the smiley face, has been fished from us.

And yet, we who will dare to see are given another chance to recoup, to separate ourselves from the carnage. The excesses, the moral cravenness, the boozing and letching surely distinguish this world from ours. Misdirection again. These are really quite ordinary tales of corporate and suburban life. Madison Avenue didn't invent divorces and infidelity, alcoholism and family dysfunction, ladder climbing and backstabbing. It did not even, though not without regret, invent the desperate need for the big lie.

What we have then is a mirror of an America gone terribly wrong, that long ago (actually, not so long ago!) decided to believe its marketing materials. We were the ones who couldn't look at our own lives. We wanted to escape into Chinese boxes of misdirection and fantasy, to be assured of new veils when the old ones became tattered. It is our history, and we don't want to know it. We admire Sterling Cooper's ingenious campaigns, and crave the images of happiness they weave.

The only campaign that is failing is the big one, the one that tells us where we are going. That campaign in all of its shoddy fabrications is there for us to see, but we will not look. Do we already know how it ends? The show will have no answers, for what it markets is denial. Those seeking the truth to set them free will look elsewhere.