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.


Paige said...

So this story is related, to your post (which I think is right on point) and I felt like sharing.

I was interviewing with law firms for jobs a few weeks ago and each time the first question was "So, this movie stuff, that seems like fun..." (meaning, you have no direction in life and took a cake major, explain yourself). And when I explained how I learned about the politics of the First Amendment's free speech clause and the use of language (visual, aural, and verbal) to drive home points, and about how to sneak through loopholes in codes and how to negotiate (mainly through film practices during the Code era) in film school, all I heard on the other end of the table was "I didn't realize it was so related to law." I don't think film school is so related to law -- it's more like I think, like you said, that media studies helps us better understand the structure of our world. I could have been interviewing to get a job at a library and have come up with different things I learned from studying media that would apply to that job.

Landon said...

Great job, Paige! Keep fighting those misconceptions. Maybe one day even med school students will understand too...

Landon said...

In the last few weeks, we've seen Don in a movie theater watching a French film (I couldn't figure out what it was, but it seemed to be New Wave) and later referencing Michelangelo Antonioni's "La Notte" (1961) to impress his most recent mistress. His surprisingly refined taste in world cinema further suggests an understanding of the innerworkings of visual media that far exceeds that of his coworkers.

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