Sunday, September 7, 2008

Mad Men as Media Criticism

If you don’t know me personally or haven’t already gleaned by my writings, in interest of full disclosure I should share that I am currently seeking an academic career in media studies. If you don’t know exactly what that means, you’re not alone. When most people think of film school, they think of actually making movies, not the classroom lectures and seminars that characterize most other academic programs. But myself and many like me believe that studying film/media involves a whole lot more than learning how to set up a C-stand or where to put a key light. Understanding the way media operates in our society is integral to understanding how ordinary people by and large receive visual information and how this shapes not only our ideas, but how we perceive daily life. To implement media studies into university programs implies a general goal of expanding an understanding of the way such media operates and influences not only our own ideas, but the structuring norms of society itself, thus (hopefully) creating a society not so blindly influenced by media.

In the words of a media studies professor delivering a paper on trends in beginning credit music sequences in Hollywood, “it’s not exactly curing cancer.” And that’s a common reaction when students and professors in cinema and media studies explain what it is exactly that they do to people unfamiliar with such programs, after correcting the obligatory confusion over the fact that we don’t actually “make movies” (after six years of university education, much of my family still think I want to be a director). Even other academic humanities programs scoff at the idea of film/media studies under the presumption that cinema is a popular, inferior art, thus unworthy of serious study. In the words of a film studies professor who will go unnamed, “it’s as if they think 14th century French literature is somehow more practically important than studying how contemporary visual media actually affect people's everyday lives.”

I could defend my eventual career choice all day, but instead of using this blog to purge those demons, I see something in contemporary popular media itself that seems paradoxical to the idea that visual media studies has no practical importance.

The world of Madison Avenue ad companies has not been the most respected of career choices, but in many circles it is an envied goal for a lucrative career, and degrees in advertising and public relations seem to be, like business administration, that degree that allowed people you know from undergrad to work 100-hour weeks straight out of school but make more money than you’ll possibly ever see. Unlike academia, it’s a business that will certainly pay off those college loans rather than escalate them.

AMC’s popular drama series Mad Men exhibits this world in all its staged glory. And while these superficial, sleazy, sexist characters are never a dull to watch, they also display a profound understanding of the way media operates in society. And keep in mind, this is 1960, about a decade before media studies had any place at all (respected or not) at the university (and this being the post WWII era, only the youngest characters supposedly have actual degrees in advertising). Don Draper, the show’s uncharismatic but engrossing lead character, exhibits the deepest understanding of how media works, and is thus the most successful salesman. While these are fabricated characters, the show’s depiction of Draper’s successful salesmanship and his understanding of media's operations are not presented as mutually exclusive traits, in the television world or real world of advertising.

Each episode of Mad Men displays how visual media is used to communicate ideas, dissuade opinions, and manipulate emotions in our everyday life (perhaps most powerfully in its depiction of fashion advertising, which preys on giving the spectator a feeling of inferiority, and then a helpless need for the product). One of the last episodes of the first season depicts how a radio commercial is constructed under the direction not of a “director” but an ad agent, thus making a connection between the practices of advertising and PR with filmmaking. In displaying the processes of creating media to influence the consumer/spectator, perhaps a show like Mad Men can be useful in informing the average television spectator as to how contemporary media (almost fifty years later) is used to manipulate them in similar ways.

Mad Men was at one point pitched to, and rejected by, HBO before it transformed AMC into a prestige cable network for original series. Had Mad Men stayed at HBO, it would have aired uninterrupted by commercials, but as it stands on AMC, it reads as a show about the men that create commercials to convince consumers to buy products they don’t need, only to be interrupted by commercials. Coming from a corporate television network, this reads either as a delicately subversive, anti-capitalist, deconstructivist jab against the powers that be, or (more likely) a network continuing to capitalize on a popular show with its advertising revenues, unaware of the conflict in its presentation alongside this show.

Check out one of the most memorable scenes of the first season’s final episode, where Don Draper displays the power of images in full, emotionally manipulative force:

I only wish an HP commercial aired right after this.

Besides the obvious, how does a career in advertising involve a “practical” understanding of the way media works, and media studies does not? As Don Draper’s career argues, advertising only works because people don’t understand how media influences them. His job is to understand how media creates and influences ideas, while constructing more media in a way that continues to make consumers/spectators passively unaware of such influence. According to the Don Draper model, there’s no money in educating people on how media works—the money is in making sure it continues to.

Manufacturing Consent

Party conventions are a funny thing. Where they used to serve the practical function of actually voting for and nominating their candidate, because of the growing importance of primary elections, the conventions of modern elections have been reduced to a party for the parties. And unlike the primaries or the post-convention debates, the DNC and RNC seem to be the only places where the respective parties can converge to deliver their talking points uncontested (and as Palin’s speech during the RNC displayed, this allows for the delivery of empirically false information and convoluted interpretations of policy without dispute). That protesters at the RNC were silenced, even jailed, so quickly displays the dearth of equitable discourse at these conventions.

The outright lies, partisan interpretations, and exhibitions of uninhibited party devotion at the RNC gives Americans a glimpse of what their nation would be like if they adopted a one-party totalitarian platform. (Not to say that the DNC was less one-sided, but at least they didn’t make chanting “USA” at the first sign of dissent sound like an Orwellian angry mob, and the Republicans have had a history in the last eight years of being the party that thrives on unquestioning support.) The lack of fair grounds for discourse at either debate altogether seems quite antithetical to the idea of a democratic nation. And the media, whose role many would think would be to dissect the content of conventions and provide a healthy ideological counterbalance against each respective platform, seemed too quick to praise the form of the speeches rather than their content, regurgitate the talking points already brought up by the party, or simply comment on the decorations: the pillars during Obama’s speech, or the plethora of balloons after McCain’s. The Daily Show was the only place I saw these past weeks where talking points were challenged rather than regurgitated.

My most recent post discussed a common form of election propaganda, the campaign commercial, but the unabashed, uncontested one-sided rhetoric of both party conventions these last two weeks have displayed the most obvious incarnations of propaganda in the American political system. But now that the candidate love-ins are over, and each party received their expected post-convention boost, I want to focus on a less obvious form of loaded dissemination of partisan ideas that will inevitably take place during the next major election events next month: the debates.

Four weeks ago, Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren moderated at his Saddleback megachurch in Southern California the closest thing to the first debate between the parties’ expected nominees. For what would seem like such a major political event, the “debate” was overshadowed by coverage of the Beijing Olympics. Warren, an outspoken pro-life “values” Republican, asked Obama a set of pre-written questions, attempting to have, in his words, an honest, nonpartisan conversation about issues deemed at “values voters,” then had McCain, who supposedly was in a “cone of silence” that did not allow him to witness Obama’s answers, subjected to the exact same questions.

Like with the convention, the media commented merely on what the form of Obama and McCain’s answers rather than their content.

Anybody who has followed Obama’s campaign knows that the Obama seen in interviews has quite a different demeanor than the Obama who gives speeches. Both can articulate complex liberal ideas in an undivisive, approachable manner, but the Obama of interviews seems largely more introspective, often pausing to give thoughtful consideration to questions rather than blurting ready-made answers that would inevitably put him in a corner. Obama has been subject this last year to many out-of-context soundbites that have rendered him unfavorable. By now, Obama understands how the media works, which means understanding how it can very easily work against him, so he chooses to think before he speaks.

Now, despite that Warren’s question was astoundingly reductive, erroneous, and too loaded with distressing implications that reflect Warren’s outspoken worldview to come anywhere close to objectivity, Obama’s answer treated the question with both solemnity and due regard, intricately explicating various interpretations of the word “evil” and respectfully outlining that a reductive definition of such a powerful word can have deplorable results, even in the name of “good.” McCain’s answer, by contrast, gives into the simplicity of the question by giving an even simpler answer in merely two words, as if Warren’s questions were a multiple-choice examination rather than an essay, without regard to the implications of his answer (defeating evil is a pretty lofty goal to set out for one's first term).

And as you can hear, the crowd loved it. And the media, rather than analyzing exactly what each candidate was actually saying, instead followed the direction of the crowd, claiming that McCain was “on his game” simply because he was able to give short answers to what were (albeit loaded) admittedly complex questions. (I also find it interesting that the evangelical crowd considered McCain a more favorable candidate because of his briskly worded ideas on abortion and gay marriage, when Obama was the only one who actually quoted scripture—but my problems with religion in politics in general opens up a whole other bag of issues we won’t go into here…but I will say this: a presidential debate held literally inside a church is an insult to both the necessary secularity of government and the sanctity of places of worship.)

Why McCain’s answers seemed favorable relates to a concept that is anything but new when it comes to political media discourse. Noam Chomsky has been theorizing for most of his career about how television has been manufactured to limit discourse on complex, challenging, or unpopular ideas, commercials being the most obvious example since they literally interrupt opportunities for prolonged attention given to any issue.

(While I love the satire of The Daily Show, it is also subject to this rule, as Jon Stewart seems to struggle to keep any substantive discussion going as most of his interviews rarely stretch pass the five-minute mark. Though The Daily Show might be funnier, Real Time with Bill Maher has shown to be a more productive place for humorous political counterpoint; Maher deliberately tries to avoid Chomsky’s trappings by having discussion take place without commercial interruption, live, and on a network free from censorship, thus (in theory) allowing for a prolonged discussion free from private interest. But being on the premium cable channel of HBO, of course, severely limits his viewership.)

Thus, McCain’s short answers look better on television than Obama’s longer ones. And any pretense of objectivity is shattered by the clear agenda of the audience. Obama’s pauses read as dead air rather than introspection necessary to assess a multilayered question, and McCain’s blurting of (pun intended) “Sunday school answers” read on television to some audiences as confident and decisive rather than a frightening quickness to judge.

From June 2007 to the beginning of the primaries, CNN held several debates among the 8-10 people running for President from each party (the “YouTube debates” perhaps being the best-known), and it was very entertaining to see the network correspondents attempt to juggle their questions for so many nominees, while their audience refused to mute their own opinions to the candidates’ ideas. They never even pretended to achieve objectivity. In this chaotic environment, it was impossible to assess any question with care, and it was the candidates who either made the shortest answers or said the craziest things (these were often one in the same...I'm looking at you, Tancredo) that got the most attention.

By the time the official debates happen in October, the farces of the CNN and Rick Warren “debates” will be long gone, replaced by a tightly moderated session and an audience forbidden from disruption. But the circuses of these past debates won’t be forgotten, and because of the strict time constraints of the upcoming debates, short answers will likely still look better than intellectual musings, and smart people will continue to be silenced. How can we ever expect to progress if the format is already rigged?