At the long-awaited crescendo of “Blowing Smoke,” this week’s otherwise slow-moving episode of Mad Men, Don Draper’s trademark of impetuous confidence makes what is, perhaps, its most outsize splash yet: a full-page ad in the New York Times declaring that their careworn agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, will no longer take tobacco clientele. As the partners and rank-in-file employees alike reel over what this will portend for the agency, it is Peggy who voices the most astute wisdom, in a private moment with Don in his office. When Don asks her what she thinks of the letter, she looks at him blankly—in that way that only Peggy can—and says “I thought you didn’t go in for those kinds of shenanigans,” before smiling at him wryly. This moment not only brings the episode full circle, but it shows just how much things have changed at the agency—and no, not just between Don and his prized protégé, but in terms of what it means to advertise, and what needs advertising.
Despite the centrality of advertising to the show’s narrative, until this season the profession itself has received a relatively uncomplicated treatment, making it one of the more dependable aspects of this often topsy-turvy world. This steadfastness provides one of the show’s most tantalizing allures, spinning fantasies of dapper account men and dazzling creativity, of an economics of abundance and unrepentant consumerist fantasies. This season, though, the business has grappled with more existential dilemmas, ones that get at the nature of advertising itself. Mad Men, and its mad men and women, have been on a quest to redefine what advertising is, dramatizing the radical changes that the field underwent during the 1960s.
Most pressing this season has been the fate of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the agency that dawned at the end of last season and which has shape-shifted in nearly every episode since—from scrappy start up to spunky boutique, from confident newcomer to jilted also-ran. This has not only laid the groundwork for fantastic personal drama (watch Don quake with nerves! See Roger reach new heights of tragic buffoonery!), but also made visible the pressures that face the agency as it struggles to find its competitive niche. In this episode, those stresses come to a head, as layoffs transpire, the partners put up their own money to extend the agency’s credit line, and they wrestle futilely for new work. A veritable Madison Avenue-style David vs. Goliath is at hand, challenging not just the mettle of the show’s leading characters, but also whether small business can compete against behemoth corporations. What can an agency like theirs bring to the table that a larger, more established firm, cannot?
The most surprising answer given this episode is ethics. “For over 25 years we devoted ourselves to a product for which good work is irrelevant, because people can’t stop themselves from buying it,” Don writes in his New York Times letter bemoaning cigarettes. “A product that never improves, that causes illness, and that makes people unhappy. But there was money in it. A lot of money.” For an ad man ostensibly to come out against a client base that provides ample revenue—especially during a moment of crisis, as their agency finds itself in—smacks of an almost pathological gumption, a righteousness unfathomable even a few episodes prior (especially when remembering the reaction, in an earlier episode, to Peggy’s criticism of a client that did not employ people of color). This attempt to make the agency stand for something mirrors Don’s own efforts, however fitful, to turn over a new leaf in his personal life; though like those more personal efforts, this move is primarily a creative one that does not necessarily match the gusto of its surface with substance. The deliberate images of numerous characters smoking in the show’s final movements visualize this, but that is only the most overt display of the duality, even hypocrisy, of Don’s actions. Instead, ethical advertising emerges as the most cunning sales pitch yet. And Don realizes, once again, that he is narrative to be written, a product to be sold.
From a historical standpoint, it is fitting that these introspections are entering at this juncture. The 1960s found advertising fraught with both innovation and crisis, beset on one side by the political and social changes of the era and on the other by brash new ways of thinking among advertisers. Among the changes initiated, solidified, and/or galvanized during this time period are the exploration of previously neglected markets, the establishment of new techniques of market research, and the adoption of more outlandish and unconventional creative techniques. This season has flirted with all these developments, and more—from the recurring themes of market segmentation and research, to renewed continuity with public relations and publicity stunts, to the politics of advertising as a practice. But most crucially, each of these issues comes to bear in recalibrating how the agency—and the people within it—think about what it is that they do. Rather than mere “shenanigans,” the outcome of this episode will be a new future for an agency where promotion and image may become as important as, and potential drivers for, the work of advertising itself.