Editor’s Note: Also check out our Rewire roundtable on Mad Men, featuring staff
writers Pamela Merritt, Amanda Marcotte, and Sarah Seltzer. Sarah kicked
off our salon Wednesday, Amanda responded on Thursday, and Pamela adds her thoughts today. After the premiere (August 16),
we’ll start a second round of conversation! Below, Crystal Merritt shares her story of being a "mad woman."
I am an ad woman, a feminist and a fan of Mad Men. (We like our target audience
definitions in advertising.) Over my 16 years in advertising, the biggest
changes for women I’ve noticed are more women in senior management, better
work-life balance policies, more women clients, growing acceptance of in-office
dating, out lesbians, the death of hosiery, and the influx of very high heels
as a personal style statement. I am happy to see all of these trends except for
the shoes, but that’s just because my feet can’t handle the pain.
I haven’t noticed a lessening of the patriarchy’s grip. But
I also don’t feel its grip very tightly, if at all. I’ve done well. I work at
an agency with women at every level, in every department. I even have female heroes
in the industry like Carol H. Williams, a rock star advertising entrepreneur. I
rarely consider whether patriarchy impacts my work.
Mad Men‘s world of
Sterling Cooper, by contrast, is steeped in patriarchy. Women are sex objects.
Housewives. Barely tolerated copywriters. Disdained researchers. I particularly
identify with the disdained researcher in the first episode, and laughed out
loud when Don Draper threw her analysis in the trash after she left his office.
I develop consumer insights and share research findings regularly and feel her
pain. Advertising at its best is somewhat primal; a good creative director
knows when to trash the research. And a good strategic planner knows when to
trust the creative instinct and when to fight for the insight. And while I
regularly fight for an insight, I am confident that my gender is not to blame
when it’s dismissed. There are just too many powerful women in advertising for
patriarchy to run the show.
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Don’t get me wrong. There are more men at the very top than
women. And I have seen men flee to the boy’s club or resort to locker room
chatter now and again. Gender-inflected dynamics exist. But watching Mad Men has made me reflect on how far
the industry has come, and how female-dominated advertising actually is.
The era depicted, advertising’s Golden Age, was surely not
as welcoming to women as agencies are now. But let’s set the record straight;
agencies weren’t always as oppressive as the show suggests. Bust magazine ran a terrific story in
the December/January issue titled "Mad Women" highlighting the role
trailblazing women played in advertising. While agency life surely reflected
the challenges in the culture at large, advertising as an industry was more
open to women than other fields. And women have shaped how advertising depicts
and speaks to women for years. Did you know that copywriter Helen Lansdowne
Resor was responsible for the first use of sex appeal in advertising, with her
line, "A skin you love to touch," for Woodbury soap? A suffragette and
ultimately a vice-president at J. Walter Thompson, she was recognized as a
pioneer for women in the field by Ladies
Home Journal in the 1920s. Her career predates the Mad Men era.
Consumers cracked the doors open for women in advertising.
Consumers drive everything we do, and the primary target audience for many
products then and now is women 18 – 49 or women 25 – 54. Even the patriarchy
understood that women matter in advertising. In the ‘40s women were writing
department store copy to appeal to women shoppers. By the ‘60s the importance
of women as shoppers was widely understood. David Ogilvy, one of the legends of
the Mad Men era, famously said, "The
consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife." Women drove household spending then
just as they do now. Today the influence of female consumers has expanded from
department stores and grocery stores. Women buy more cars than men. Women buy
more electronics than men. Women vote more than men. Women make healthcare
Mad Men‘s Peggy
Olson, a rising copywriter at Sterling Cooper, succeeds because her copy is
just that good. In the first season she quietly had a baby and then
relinquished it. She cracked the code on how to speak to women about lipstick
with the line "a basket full of kisses." She discovered the real consumer
benefit of a buzzing vibrator and brought the insight of the Big O to a
meeting. She’s still not making the coveted big trips to the West Coast to
pitch potential clients that she’s clearly earned; patriarchal mores of the day
have her staying home. But she’s
striving and thriving outside of the secretarial pool. We’ve seen Peggy demand (and
get) a raise and an office, make the most of her assignments, sell her ideas in
meetings and generally hold her own in the boy’s club of Sterling Cooper. Don
Draper, committed chauvinist, respects her talent – he can recognize a good
idea when he sees one.
One of Sterling Cooper’s Madison Avenue rivals on the show
is the real-life agency Doyle Dane Bernbach. Partner Bill Bernbach once said,
"The most powerful element in advertising is the truth." He was a creative
influence on Mary Wells, and the truth is she was one of the biggest ad legends
of the era. Wells was writing copy at DDB in Manhattan in the early ‘60s; she
went on to found Wells Rich Greene in 1966. By 1969 she was the highest paid
executive in advertising, pulling down $225,000. Not the highest paid woman; the
highest paid, period. If "I love New York," "Friends don’t let friends drive
drunk," and "Trust the Midas touch" are familiar, then you have felt her
influence over the years. (If they’re not familiar, you’re so young I hate you.)
I wonder how different Mary Wells’ experience was when compared to Peggy Olson,
my favorite character on the show.
None of Mad Men‘s
women have it all, and nor do we today, but our place in the advertising industry
is solid. We don’t have to fight the blatant sexism depicted on the show. In
fact, our numbers and influence have grown to such an extent that we must now
hold ourselves accountable for what we achieve, and how. Advertising rarely
seeks social change; pro-bono work and issue campaigns are the exceptions.
We’re in the business of selling stuff cloaked in ideas, not the ideas
themselves. Who is to blame if ideas designed to sell undermine the place of
women in society and do cultural harm while achieving commercial success?
As a woman in advertising with an evolving feminist
consciousness, I’m faced with the implications of how we wield our power to
persuade. Mad Men has made me think
hard about the fact that we have a seat at the table and voices that carry.
Almost every ad you see had to get past a woman before it got to you – probably
a bunch of women – from agency staffers to clients. Will we have the courage
and the consciousness to make a stand for women in our daily work? Like Barbara
Gardner Proctor who was fired for refusing to work on a campaign she considered
racist and sexist before she founded her own agency, Proctor and Gardner
Advertising, in 1971.
Women in advertising have the power to shape normative
images of the female experience; what is desirable, acceptable and believed to
be true. You don’t have to reinforce patriarchy to do great work. If you see
echoes of patriarchy in an ad today, you owe women in advertising the respect
of holding us accountable for the work, too. We’re actively participating in
the creation of the work you see, following in the steps of Mad Women.