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The Power and Influence of 'The Real Mad Men of Advertising'
January 12, 2017  | By David Hinckley

The executives who shaped the modern advertising industry in the 1950s and 1960s may not have been as fascinating as Don Draper, but their impact was even more dramatic.

At times, in fact, almost a little creepy.  

The Real Mad Men of Advertising (the premiere episode is being repeated Thursday at 10 p.m. ET on the Smithsonian Channel), tracks our post-World War II transition into an economy built increasingly on consumerism.

After many centuries in which mankind acquired things almost entirely because we needed them – food, clothing, shelter – the 1950s ushered in an era when we acquired things simply because we wanted them.

True, that had always been an option for a small privileged and wealthy elite, back to the Greeks and Romans.

But in the 1950s it became a viable option, albeit on a more modest scale, for the much wider demographic now known as the middle class.

Technological advances, accordingly, pivoted toward consumer goods: sleeker refrigerators and vacuum cleaners, merchandise branded from popular culture, snazzier automobiles, products guaranteed to stop bad breath.

Madison Avenue worked relentlessly to reassure us – not that we needed a lot of convincing – that we not only wanted these things, we deserved them.

That was the subtext of almost everything coming out of Madison Avenue in the 1950s and early 1960s, and Real Mad Men makes this point in a way that's both convincing and entertaining.

For people over 50 or 60, the show is worth watching just to see the clips of vintage ads, like the one that informs us more doctors smoke Camel than any other cigarette.

Broken up into three parts, one on each decade through the 1970s, the show also breaks advertising down into target areas, prominently including women.

The woman of the 1950s, according to Madison Avenue, always wore full makeup and pearls, even when she was on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor.

This probably did achieve the unlikely goal of glamorizing floor polish. It had the more subtle effect of sending the message that this is how a 1950s woman is supposed to look and behave – knowing her place was in the home, yet always camera-ready for her man.

At the same time, however, out in the real world, more women than ever were going to college, launching careers and nurturing ambitions that included more than just keeping the floor clean and baking the perfect cookie.

It's not that the women's movement developed as a backlash to what we now view as cartoonishly annoying product ads. It's just interesting how aggressively women were portrayed one way by the commercial world at a time when there was a measurable shift the other way in the actual world.

What's indisputable, in any case, is that Madison Avenue helped create the world that advertisers wanted; that is, a world in which the targets increasingly were saying, "Bring it on."

The show does allow that consumers did not become so blind they would buy anything produced by a corporation with a large advertising budget. The Ford Edsel, for instance, flopped. But advertising did create lucrative markets for somewhat optional items like Howdy Doody puppets.

Not many years after advertisers began aggressively advertising diamond engagement rings, the percentage of engaged women wearing diamonds jumped from less than 20% to 75%.

All this synced quite nicely, Real Mad Men notes, with America's national economic policy. After two decades of Depression and World War, consumerism was seen as the best way to insulate the economy from sudden drastic jolts.

We can have a lively debate on whether that was a sound premise. What can't be debated, as Real Mad Men demonstrates convincingly, is that the advertising executives of the post-World War II years were anything but crazy.

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