Is the ending of Mad Men Cynical or Poetic?

Historically we have always tended to think of popular culture, including advertising, as a lower form of culture. While the 1984 Apple Ad, the classic Volkswagon commercials and the Hilltop Coke one are considered to be brilliant, shining examples of advertising, we wouldn’t necessarily place them in the canon of a Beethoven symphony, a Picasso painting, or a Balanchine ballet.

The one thing these all have in common though is the seed of creativity.

Our first glance at Don Draper in episode one, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, shows him writing ideas on a napkin in a smoke filled bar. We see him behaving like a cultural anthropologist of the 1960’s as he speaks to an African American waiter about why he smokes Rolled Gold cigarettes. The answer he gets is that it is tied in large part to habit, ritual, enjoyment and experiences. Then comes the somewhat prophetic, though, not surprising line, given that we now know Betty’s fate: “My wife says they’ll kill you… women love their magazines.” What is Betty doing, the last time we lay eyes on her? Reading a magazine and smoking.

Don does what all artists do, they mine the human experience and use it in their art.

The question of whether what he does with his research is art or not, cuts to the core of whether the last sequence of the farewell episode of Mad Men is cynical or poetic.

Because Mathew Weiner is without a doubt a brilliant artist, he had a consistent vision of the show from day one. I believe that he knew where Don Draper would be in episode one and where he would be in episode 96. I would even venture to argue that the seed of creativity for Weiner was the classic Coke commercial. What it does so brilliantly is to tap into the need we all have for genuine connection and authenticity. As the automobiles that all the incarnations of the ad agencies on Mad Men were so fixated on, took us further and further into the suburbs and splintered us from each other, we craved the genuine connection that village life had given us to an even greater degree. Marshall McLuhan prophesized that the new technologies would create a global village for us, but time has born out the fact that today in the second decade of the new millennium, we are still feeling unmoored a lot of the time. I believe that Weiner saw that commercial and in it recognized a salve for loneliness. He dreamt up a man who on the surface seemed to have everything that modern western civilization has convinced us that we need, but that because of the lack of proper familial attachment early in life, felt essentially empty and alone. No amount of affairs, alcohol, wandering, paperbacks or mid-afternoon escapes to the movie theatre could fill the void. One could argue that Weiner was playing with us a bit in one of the last moments of the show by wasting value finale time on an anonymous everyman. No doubt audiences around the world were yelling at their screens: “More Don, more Peggy, less of this shmuck!” It was fitting, however, because despite the genetic lottery that Don won, he is completely this man as so many of us are. The comforts of modern life, can, for a time, however, make us feel better, even if the feeling better is the ache that nostalgia provides as Don so deftly showed us in his more artful pitches such as The Carousel.

Bill Backer who created the concept for the Coke Hilltop ad (Bill Backer, Don Draper….I’m just saying….) is not a slick ad executive of the type featured and sometimes parodied in the show. When watching video clips of him, he just seems like a nice man who is genuinely proud of the work that he did while at McCann Erickson. The spark for it came about when he saw people in an airport sharing a Coke and a conversation during a delayed flight. Their anger at the inconvenience was softened by the opportunity to “keep each other company for a while.” He wrote the line “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.” on a napkin and so we have come full circle. One could certainly argue that this momentary connection in an airport or cafe is a genuine experience that we have all had at one point in our lives. The song also took on a life of its own; a separate version entitled “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” was recorded, became a hit, and was sung in schools around the world. This “big idea”, as David Ogilvy puts it in his seminal article entitled How to Produce Advertising that Sells, of multicultural gap bridging, has been copied over and over again by Benetton, Adidas, McDonalds and on and on…

The last few seconds of Person to Person are definitely somewhat ambiguous, however, if one is to believe that it is Don who returned to McCann in the ultimate episode of the show to conceive of and pen the classic “Hilltop” commercial, whether it is perceived as a commentary on how everything including spirituality, therapy, human connection, and renewal can be mined and co-opted in the world of advertising or as a confirmation that Don, the artist, returned to form and is back doing what he does best, depends very much on how you view advertising itself.

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